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Episode 29: Virtually Yours (Part 2)

If there is a hot technology in museums right now, it is virtual reality–a technology sometimes credited as being the “ultimate empathy machine.” But can VR live up to the hype for museums? What happens when VR technologies are used to recreate or invoke traumatic experiences? What kinds of scaffolding do museums need to provide when preparing a visitor for these kinds of embodied experiences? And how can museums use VR promote representation and inclusion?

In this special two-part episode of Museopunks, Suse and special guest co-host Desi González, explore the realities of working with the virtual. In part one, Michael Haley Goldman speaks on the prototyping being done at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to experiment with VR, while Kai Frazier discusses the work she is doing with her VR start-up CuratedXKai to provide inclusive opportunities and increased exposure in cultural settings for people of colour.

In part two, we take a deep dive into Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s academy-award winning virtual reality installation CARNE y ARENA with VR film-maker Paisley Smith.

Suse Anderson: Good day, and welcome to Museopunks, the podcast for the progressive museum. Welcome to a special two-part episode. In fact, this is part two of our two-part episode exploring virtual reality, or VR experiences, in museums. I’m being joined today by a special guest cohost being Desi González.

Desi, how are you doing?

Desi González: Good, how are you?

Suse Anderson: I’m really good. In our last episode, we spoke to Michael Haley Goldman about the work that is happening at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. We also spoke to Kai Frazier, who is running a VR start-up called Curated by Kai. What were your big takeaways from those discussions? Or is there anything that has come out those discussions that you’re still thinking about?

Desi González: Yeah. I think lot of really great thought from the both them in terms of how they are exploring this relatively young medium that a lot of different industries and sectors are trying to figure out how to use.

One question that I had asked Kai at one point during our interview, which if you haven’t listened to it, I recommend you go back and listen to it. She is out there working with classes, creating kind of a more DIY 360 VR experiences, and I asked her what’s a virtual reality experience that she’s found powerful that’s out there somewhere in the world.

She brought up this one piece, that I’ve been dying to see, called Carne y Arena. It’s produced by the director Alejandro Iñárritu, and it’s been on view in Los Angeles, in DC, all over the world, and has received an Academy Award for kind of its groundbreaking work.

That was really great to hear her say that because actually, we’re planning to talk to another person who is going to take a deep dive into that work, and that’s Paisley Smith.

Suse Anderson: Yeah, absolutely. You and I have both been trying to get in to see or experience that VR film, and neither of us have been able to. Quick shout-out to anyone who has access, Desi and I both want to go, so if you can make that happen, please do.

But this is a really interesting conversation. I think Paisley had written a great blog post, that you had pointed me to, really talking about the experience from where it starts, which is well before the headset goes on, all the through to its end point.

I think this conversation gives a lot for museums, who are planning these experiences, to think about, that embodied experience and how they can create sensory or environmental, really, threshold and entry experiences that support and surround the VR experience to make it much more impactful, I think, than the film in it of itself.

Desi González: Yeah, and this Carne y Arena deals with difficult subject matter. When we were talking to Michael in the previous episode, he’s also talking about how we can use this new media in a really thoughtful way to deal with things that might, for many audiences, be traumatic.

What I’m really interested in about this conversation, one of the many things I’m really interested in, is how we could create this experience using VR that might take difficult subject matter, but treats it in a way that’s really well though-out, that provides spaces for reflection.

Virtual reality, what it affords us, is this kind of this realness, right? Really putting us, or attempting to put us, in a new experience or a new place. So I’m really excited about this conversation that we had with Paisley because it reveals so much about what VR can do, what it could be, and how we might be able to expand and kind of push the limits of the medium.

Suse Anderson: Awesome. Let’s get into it.

Paisley Smith is a Canadian filmmaker and virtual reality creator based in Los Angeles and Vancouver. Smith is the creator of Homestay, a personal VR documentary produced by the NFB Interactive Studio with Jam3. Homestay was selected for the IDFA DocLab 2017.

Paisley is the recipient of the 2018 Sundance Institute and Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Fellowship for her forthcoming work Unceded Territories: VR, a collaboration with acclaimed artist and VR pioneer Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, with support from Creative British Columbia. In addition, Paisley is a visiting artist at the University of Southern Interactive Media Division’s Mobile & Environmental Media Lab.

Smith holds an MFA from the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, and she is an admin of the thriving Women in VR/AR Facebook group, with over 10,000 members of the emerging technology community.

Paisley, thank you for joining us on Museopunks. Welcome to the show.

Paisley Smith: Thank you so much for having me. This is so exciting.

Suse Anderson: It’s so great to have you here. We’re going to kick off with a bit of a discussion about museums, and VR, and embodied experiences. But before we start, I’d really like to know why, as an artist, you are drawn to VR? What does the medium afford you? Why do you work in this space?

Paisley Smith: Well, it’s a very interesting question because when I first started in VR, I actually just fell into working in the medium. It kind of happened in a random way. But the first time I tried VR, and I experienced being in another world and just saw the possibilities of sharing stories in that way, I was drawn to creating in that medium.

Even more so than experiencing it myself, seeing other people’s reactions to VR, and when they came out of the projects that we were showing, and their look was so intense. Like they’d gone on this great journey and came back to reality when they took the headset off. That moment of connection really made me curious about the medium and decided to kind of pursue it more seriously.

Desi González: That’s really fantastic. I’m wondering, when you’re thinking about working with VR, are you using a new or different kind of cinematic language to create these experiences? Or is it more of a continuation of other media that you’ve worked with before?

Paisley Smith: I studied film and television production for my master’s, and I’ve been making films since I was in high school, so I am very fluent in that language of traditional cinema. For me, drawing on that experience has been very useful in creating virtual reality, but I definitely had to change the way I approach thinking about story.

For me, rather than thinking about story in a straight visual sense, like the frame of a film, I would think about space and feeling of a space, and your movement, and what you’re touching, and does anything appear behind you? So not just thinking what’s in front of you, or what’s visible, but what could emerge in these spaces, and how they make you feel.

I think that speaks to the language. But basically, for me, that would be in terms of a traditional story board where, for example, I wouldn’t be just drawing it in a little rectangle like we’re used to. I would be maybe doing a bird’s-eye view drawing, and then mapping those things out, and the movements of different things.

I often compare it more to dance. Dancers, I think, have a huge advantage in virtual reality because they are very familiar and natural in communicating space and movement in that way.

Desi González: Yeah, I know. That’s really interesting. I’m kind of thinking right now about what you’re saying, and how there’s a little bit of this sense of you’re thinking differently than a linear film because of space, the feeling, and the movement, it’s a choreography. In terms of kind of the audience for Museopunks, for our podcast, for people who are working spatially as well, right? Who are thinking about exhibit design.

I recommended to bring you on as a guest to Museopunks because of a really fantastic and incredibly detailed account that you wrote on your blog about your experience in Alejandro Iñárritu’s Academy Award-winning virtual reality installation Carne y Arena. I think it translates in English to Flesh and Sand. It’s been on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Arts among other places.

I want to talk to you about this because I think you did a really amazing job explaining how a public space like a museum can activate a VR work, which kind of is this medium that we’re not sure how to deal with quite yet, right? Is it film? Is it art? Is it installation? Is it spatial? Right?

Maybe just to start, can you give us a brief explanation of Carne y Arena, and why you were so moved by this work?

Paisley Smith: Sure, yeah. Just to give you some context, I work part-time as a researcher for the Sundance Institute’s New Frontier Story Lab. Part of my job here is to research up-and-coming artists and to see what’s new and cool in the space in emerging technology.

And so it’s like I’m always trying new stuff, and meet with people, and we are actually across the street from LACMA, where the project is installed. These tickets have been super hot in LA and really hard to get your hands on. That’s, for me, a major VR issue in general. It’s just how to actually see these pieces when they’re exhibited. I was super fortunate that one of my colleagues couldn’t use her ticket one day, so I got to go over there. I’d been wanting to go from months prior to go and enhance the very overly enthusiastic blog post after.

So I went over there, and I honestly didn’t know what to expect because there’s very limited information on the project on the Internet. There aren’t any images from the inside of the experience.

I used to work for a company in Los Angeles called Emblematic Group, and that was founded by Nonny de la Peña, who is known as the godmother of virtual reality. When I was working with her, Iñárritu studio actually had come in and Nonny had consulted on the project, so I knew that he was working on something.

Nonny’s work is primarily immersive journalism. So we would put you on location of a serious event that has occurred in the world in order to kind of allow someone who’s not there to connect with the material, or to perhaps show them a perspective and to share what’s going on in the world. The idea behind this piece, in the sense of sharing the immigrant experience with a wider audience, was familiar to me. But I was not mentally prepared, or I guess, with my experience in VR and the way I’ve seen works exhibited, this was a totally spectacular version of that.

A lot of the time, in best case scenarios for VR viewing, you would have your project exhibited in a space, which is ideally a wide enough space to have walk-around ability because a lot of these projects are fully immersive and have the ability to, once you’re in the virtual world, roam.

That’s an essential part of that, so if you’re viewing a normal VR project, having that space is essential. And then on top of that, you want to have someone who’s there to kind of guide you, or be a leader, as you enter this virtual world, and make sure that you don’t walk into walls, and who helps you, if you’re a new VR user, getting in and out of the experience. For me, this person is an essential element of going into projects.

Especially immersive journalism, for me, can be very intense, and heavy, and you’re seeing a lot of often jarring images that you maybe aren’t expecting. Obviously there’s a reason for these things to have this element because it’s what people are actually experiencing around the world. However, I think when you come out of those projects, and you see the person who’s leading us through it, it kind of can give you context, so they can answer questions and help you kind of acclimatize to whatever you’re experiencing.

So I walked over there, I think I might have been at lunch time or something, and I went by myself, and I walked over there, and I met someone at the museum at LACMA who signed me in. They didn’t really give me much information, but I did have to sign a waiver. And I made a note of this in the blog post, but I’ve done so much VR, and I don’t think I’ve ever signed anything for it. So I was already thinking, “That’s interesting. Okay. I’m a little nervous.”

Desi González: Yeah, it’s more than a trigger warning. It’s the next step after a trigger warning. Really escalated from that.

Paisley Smith: Totally. Yeah. I was like, “Okay. Is someone going to touch me? Where am I going?” Because, I mean, the truth is with VR you could really be doing almost anything. Especially with really super advanced installation, for example, something at LACMA, you don’t know what they are capable of. They could have touch interaction, they could have walk-ability, many elements could be incorporated.

I’ve done VR where the floors change, and you’re walking across a fiery pity. You know what I mean? You just don’t know. So in this piece, I get to the location, they sign me in, and then they give me a bit of context. I would go in and read about the project in a dark room. Then when the bell rings, I will move into the next space, and then I will be given instructions on what to do next.

The first room is kind of context. I’d like to think of this as, kind of in a film, the credits. You’re kind of getting into the mood of the project, it’s setting the tone. So in that space, I read about why Iñárritu decided to do this project, how the migrant and immigrant moving into the United States, their experience has affected him as a Mexican American. It gives them the context in when he started researching the project, and all this, and all the people involved.

Actually, he thanked Nonny in that area, which I thought was really nice. So in that space you kind of get a hint of what you’re going to get into. I’d say it’s like the appetizer of the project. Then the buzzer rung, and I walk into this room, and the first thing I notice, it’s icy cold, and it’s super creepy.

It’s basically a big empty room with long benches, and there are shoes of people, who are not there, all over the floor. Like people have left their shoes, like their belongings are there. So honestly, right off the bat, I have a very creepy feeling like I’m in a place that I don’t want to be, and I feel trapped. The feeling of being very, very cold, it really brought the story, and the mood, and the tone of the project to life.

Desi González: And just to clarify, you’re physically in this room. You’re not in the VR world yet, right?

Paisley Smith: Oh, yes. Yeah, yeah. Sorry, I should have clarified.

Desi González: Where you’re looking at … Yeah, you’re in a room with real shoes there … Yeah.

Paisley Smith: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Desi González: Okay, great.

Paisley Smith: Yeah, so this is still in the real world. I walked into this room … I mean, I guess in theory you could’ve done this in a virtual space. I think what really is amazing about this project is that they were such a large area to work with in the real world. I think that’s what’s so incredible about this project.

Suse Anderson: Yeah, I think that’s something I would like to dig into a little bit more as well, once we sort of get into this conversation.

Paisley Smith: For sure, I’d love to talk about that. It’s super interesting to me.

So you’re in this icy room, this kind of detention center waiting room, where they have told me I’m supposed to wait for instructions. I’m nervous, I’m wondering, “Is someone going to come in and talk to me? Is it going to be a voice on the intercom? What’s going to happen?” A voice actually comes into the room and says, in a very cold way, “Please, remove your personal items and your shoes. Please, take your personal items and take your shoes off and put them in the locker.”

At the back wall of this room, there’s a little kind of metallic locker that reminds me of either a kitchen stainless steel or kind of an industrial locker. So I was already totally in the world of this project, and I was petrified. I actually forgot to take off my socks, even though they told me to do it. I had my socks on for the whole project, which you’ll understand why that’s kind of funny.

I had my socks on, and I put my stuff into the locker, and I get ready to go into the next room, and I wait for the buzzer. So the red light flashes signaling that I can move on to the next space. I get into this room, and it’s a massive, massive warehouse space. It’s darkly lit with a beautiful ominous orange and yellow kind of fiery lighting that’s coming from, I believe, I mean, it’s bit of my own imagination now at this point, but what I can remember is some sort of neon or atmospherical lightning from somewhere in the space.

Across the whole large warehouse space was dirt, like sandy dirt. There are two LACMA attendants who are there, and they say for me to come to where they are, and they said … they don’t actually even speak to me, they just put the headset on. In my blog post, I talk about this part of my job in VR has often been to show people VR. So I’m very familiar with how to put on the headset, and introduce people to what they’re going to see, and kind of get them into the mood. Which they are clearly trained not to talk to me because I was trying to be funny and charming, and they were like, “No. Don’t talk to us.” So I’m like, “Okay. I just won’t. I will go with it.”

I put on the headset, and instantly I’m transported to a virtual desert space. This is when I just knew it was just so powerful. You’re in the desert, and you’re alone, and there’s some small plants around, but basically it’s pretty barren and there’s not much there.

After a while of kind of walking around … and so I should note that in this piece you’re tethered. So you kind of wear this VR headset, and you have a very long wire that follows you around, which is how you have tracking in the space, and how the system knows where you are, and how it all flows. It’s because you’re mapped to the space through the headset. It’s very cool to have a project with room scale walk-ability like this space, so I could really freely explore this desert.

Desi González: How big is this? So you could walk throughout the entire warehouse space? Yeah, I’ve done VR experiences that might be a tiny New York bedroom space that you can walk in, right?

Paisley Smith: Yeah, I would say probably it felt like I had a very vast space. I’m sure it wasn’t actually a whole warehouse, but it definitely felt like bigger than a New York apartment. It felt like at least two LA apartments, like it felt that big. I mean, it might have been a little bit less. Once you’re in the headset, it’s hard to tell how big things are because they’re moving you and your perspective is changing based on what direction you’re facing. You can actually feel like you have a lot more space than you might.

But for example, with something like the Vive headset, it would show you when you go outside of the space that you’re allowed to walk in, so that you don’t hit a wall in your own apartment or something, but this didn’t have that. It was all relying on the people.

Suse Anderson: Paisley, I actually will just break you at that point. Talk a little bit more about the people. A few years ago there were a lot of conversations in the museum technology space about immersive theater productions, and as you’re talking, it really sounds very similar to some of those sorts of things. There was the sort of the priming that happens before you enter the actual production space from the start.

There were also the human elements. So thinking about the gentle tug on your backpack that you wrote about in the blog post when you were going out of range, and you’re talking now about how you sort of steered into the right direction. I would really like to talk or find out a little bit more about those human factors and those guiding interventions. And even those questions of touch, and consent, and how you’ve mentioned that you had a consent form at the start.

But those human factors, those people who guided you through this space, how did that play into this immersive environment? Was it done in a way that it was quite obvious or quite subtle? Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Paisley Smith: Yeah, sure. So it definitely has something to do with immersive theater. Everyone who is in this project working for LACMA, from at least my assessment, has definitely been trained not to try and engage with the people that are walking in. The idea here is to move people through rather very quickly and efficiently, but also it speaks the piece.

I actually was rereading my blog post regarding this point because I had talked earlier about how much I love that part when you get to talk to someone after they come out of the headset. At first, when I was thinking about this project, I really kind of wished I could have talked to those two people and asked them questions about their experience.

I wanted to talk to them, but the fact that I couldn’t, and that they were not interested in talking to me, and that they had to be very efficient with how they communicated with me, actually, I think spoke to the experience of the project that they were trying to get across. Like migrants are taken to a holding space, and not given much information. On top of that, there’s probably a language barrier, so communication between people, it’s very limited.

I thought that in this instance, it really spoke to the experience and amplified the message that they were getting across. That frustration, I felt, was definitely heightened because of it, so I thought It worked. But I think that the way they did it was pretty respectful of the audience and gave me an understanding of what they were doing. When they touched the backpack when I was going out of range, that didn’t take me out of the experience.

I actually felt release, which is a privilege because we’re dealing with these really intense issues where if you were an actual migrant, you wouldn’t have someone who’s like they are secretively protecting you outside of your world, that’s real. So those were moments where I recognized that I was not in danger, and that actually someone was looking out for me, which has a pros and cons to the point of the project.

Suse Anderson: And as you say, it was touching your backpack, not the actual body as well. So there are ways of sort of navigating how you maneuver someone through a space, but you’re not also having to physically touch them, for people who might not be comfortable with that.

Paisley Smith: Exactly. This sounds like a humble brag, but one time, at our own lab, Will Smith came into our studio, and I had to put the VR headset on him. The VR headsets that we used at Emblematic Groups when we first started were 3-D printed, and they looked like an alien headdress. Because at the top of it there was basically three sticks that came out with different lights on the top. And it had to be tightened under your head with a … I don’t know what you would call it, but we had this thing that you had to basically screw in the back to put on your head. So I had to be like, “Uh, excuse me, Will Smith. Is it okay if I touch your head now?” It was one of those things where I’m like, “I will never forget this virtual reality experience.”

Desi González: Yeah, there is something so intimate about virtual reality because if you’re, for example, someone who’s assisting put on a headset, you are the one who is getting so close to their body, putting something on their head which is one of the most sensitive points of the body.

You are there kind of watching them, and I can imagine for someone who is a staff member who’s tugging on the backpack while you’re in Havana. While it’s part of kind of your character, your role to seem like you’re really cold, and maybe like you might be treated if you were a migrant. Really what you’re doing there, is caring for someone, and that’s really fascinating.

Paisley Smith: Totally. I totally feel that. It is this weird intimacy that is created through technology, and I think the thing that’s really weird to me about VR, is that it’s not really tapping into that in terms of the marketing of this technology. I feel like there’s a missed opportunity there in the way that we’re communicating VR to people and to the public audience, as people who don’t know a lot about VR.

On top of that, when you take off the headset, you’re staring right into someone’s eyes. You’re so close to them. The first time I did VR, I was terrified. First of all, I knew that there were people in the room who were watching me do it. I was very hyper aware of my reality, but then also very aware of the virtual world, so navigating between those two worlds with my consciousness was really interesting.

Desi González: I’ve always struggled with VR experiences in getting away from the physical world outside of the headset. I’ve always felt very self-conscious about it, like you described. But it seems like in this project, this new world starts far beyond the headset, right? It’s starting in the three rooms that you enter before you put on the headset. Every little detail is immersing you deeper and deeper.

And I really loved … I mean, I haven’t had the chance to experience it myself, I tried going. As you said, the tickets are really hard to get, but it’s something that I’m interested to see. That blurring of the virtual world and the physical world.

Suse Anderson: There’s also something that I think is quite interesting is, we talked about this… that idea of vulnerability and trust that you’re really handing over trust to, not just the filmmaker, but also the people, and the environment, and the context, and that’s a very vulnerable place to be.

If you’ve never had one of those experiences before, or in fact, even if you have, there’s something quite tenuous about the decision to basically be put into a context where you don’t know what’s happening outside of that VR world, and have that sense of trust within the environment and within the people.

So it’s not just about caring, but also vulnerability. It makes me wonder with something like both this experience, but also other VR experiences that are maybe successful, whether they play into that vulnerability, whether they actually lean into those feelings of discomfort, or being on edge, that people have just by handing over that trust to someone that they don’t know.

Paisley Smith: Yeah, and then one of the things that’s come up a number of times, and I’ve seen discussions about it is, for example, when someone’s in VR, a photography of that person in VR and permission of using that image. Because technically their face isn’t fully in it, but you’re taking liberty of capturing an image while they’re in a different place, essentially. So that’s a conversation that’s come out of that too on the other kind of end of that, is consent when someone’s in VR.

I don’t really know how … Maybe I’m losing a point here, but I was just thinking about this whole process of moving someone through VR and following them around. Because all of the people at LACMA, who were running us through this project, had to trail us with the VR headset, and the train, essentially, of wires that go behind you from the headset. That whole process really, you get to know someone’s movement and whether they feel safe in this space too.

For example, in this project, at a certain point a helicopter flies over you, and in the real world a giant fan is blasting air at you. So all of a sudden it’s very shocking, and you can see the helicopter flying over you in the virtual world. My instinct is to get down on the ground, and they’re also shouting at you, “Get down on the ground. Put your hands up, get on the ground.”

For me, I’m fighting my knowledge of being in a real world and staying standing because I know that nothing can actually happen to me. But on the other hand, if I want to fully embrace being in a virtual world and experiencing what they’ve designed for me to experience, and on top of that, the fear that is really inside of me when I hear someone screaming at me with guns saying, “Get on the ground. Get on the ground.”

So I did do that and then had to really talk myself out of my fear to actually get up, and move around, and explore the space while other people are still on the ground. That really was playing with fear and virtual versus real fear, in that way that comes from VR…what it evoked.

Suse Anderson: Paisley, can you talk a little bit about, then, those physical sensations and those sorts of things? I mean, you talked about the fan with the helicopter, you talked about the cold. I know, from your blog post, one of the reasons it was so significant that you kept your socks on is that there was dust in the environment throughout the space. How much do you, as a filmmaker, think about those kinds of aspects of the display context? And when you’ve worked with museums, how much control have you had over those aspects of that exhibition or of that display?

Paisley Smith: First of all, it was really interesting to do the experience in socks because it truly felt like I’d been wearing socks and shoes on this trip that I was on and had lost my shoes. I really got this sense and the discomfort associated with dusty socks, like rocks in your socks, and carrying around these things that feel like a burden. Because it would actually feel, in some way, better to have bare feet because, I don’t know. I was just very conscious of the fact that I was wearing them and on the one hand not feeling the ground that I was designed to feel, but on the other hand, there is a sense of not being in the right place.

So I felt that a really special detail that they were able to bring into this exhibition, which is a sense of touch and feel on the ground of this piece. I mean, to really bring it home was to have you walking through the desert. It really brought the project to life in a way that was really unexpected for me.

I think it’s a really, as an artist, it’s a huge privilege to have an exhibition space that would allow something like that. Because it is very rare to have that kind of liberty of design of your exhibition space. The museum spaces that I’ve worked on projects and the exhibition of those projects, we’ve had some space to do design, but most of it has to be… it’s never for a permanent exhibition, for example. It’s usually something that would be there for a week or less than that. So we might be able to bring in some art department style props, and signage, and that kind of stuff.

In one of our exhibitions we did at the Sundance Film Festival, was for Project Syria. In that project we had signage that we built to kind of look like it was on a street in Aleppo. Then we had kind of a smaller scale of one of the things that I really liked about at Tim’s project, was that in his piece there’s a reflection space where you can kind of make sense of the project and come to terms with it. There is a guest book you can sign, and that’s what we did in a number of our installations.

We had a space with music where you could kind of collect your thoughts about the experience that you witnessed and reflect. And we had a space where you could write notes, and then hang those notes onto a map of Syria, and kind of connect with the story and your thoughts in that way. It offered this kind of conclusion to the heightened emotions of the project.

In this project at LACMA, we had a similar space. First of all, once you get out of the project, you go down this dark hallway. It’s a new room, so first of all, you’re allowed to clean off your feet and your hands of the dust, which is a very nice touch, I thought. Because there is a bench there, and you can kind of sit there for a second, and I actually was just like, “Wow!” I was sweating profusely. I was like, “Okay, I need to sit here for a minute.” Then you go into this next room, and as you walk down this hallway, it’s super beautiful and very well designed.

To your left, as you’re facing forward, there are basically LED screens that have been positioned inside of what looks like shadow boxes, but very deep shadow boxes. You can’t see what the light from each screen is. I’d say there’s probably six or seven screens that are embedded into this wall, but you can’t see what they are when you first walk into the room. You have to physically walk forward to see what’s on the screen, and when you do, you see the face of different people whose stories are being told.

As you go through this room, and you read these stories because they’re not speaking, you’re just reading. You realize that those are the people who you were traveling with in the desert. That really brought the experience back home for me too because I got to understand why certain things were happening in the project.

For example, there’s one guy who is with our group, when the border patrol kind of stops us, and they’re interrogating him, but he doesn’t understand what they’re saying because he doesn’t speak the same dialect as anyone else. He doesn’t speak Spanish. It was a really interesting experience to kind of make sense and draw the connections between these stories of real people and the virtual people that I had been traveling with.

Anyways, this whole hallway and this experience offered kind of a conclusion to the story. Then at the end of it, your heart rate’s going down, and you’re making sense of it. You’re coming to terms with the realism of the piece. And then there’s a place where you can rate in the guest book, and reflect, and share your own experiences and reactions to the piece.

I thought that was a really nice touch because whereas normally someone might have been there for you to talk to, this guest book offered a place for you to kind of share your heightened emotions about the piece and make sense of it.

Desi González: That’s really fantastic. And that kind of reflection space at the end, I think it’s so crucial. Yeah, to me that seems like it’s part of the piece itself, or at least from a museum educator perspective.

Paisley Smith: Totally.

Desi González: People need that, right? To have a meaningful and not totally terrified traumatic experience from that.

Paisley Smith: Yeah, and you know what’s interesting? It’s actually, there’s been some studies that have come out in the last little while that have been saying that jumping in and out of your experience is actually pretty bad for your vision. So going directly from a super real world to then going into a virtual world that has a lot of action or bright lightning, these introductory spaces like the home room kind of entry point into a VR piece, and then the exit conclusion room. Even if they’re in a virtual world, offer your eyesight the ability to kind of regulate, get back to some sort of normalcy before you go back into the real world, for example. Does that make sense?

Desi González: I was just going to say-

Suse Anderson: Yeah, it makes total sense. It actually sounds like one of the purposes for us doing the show is for museums to really be thinking about the conventions for display and for experiencing VR within the museum context. As we wrap up a little bit, one of the things I’d just love to know is what you think VR exhibitors are getting right and what they’re getting wrong? And 10 years from now, what you think we’ll be doing to experience VR in a museum context?

Paisley Smith: Well, I think the most important thing right now is that museums have these tools available for the public because as a VR creator and filmmaker, my biggest issue is that still so many of my friends haven’t tried the medium that I’m working in. Unfortunately, that means that there’s not really an audience for the work that we’re making.

For example, Homestay, I worked on for three years, and it’s a lot of late nights, and tears, and so much effort went into making it, but I’m having a hard time figuring out how to show it to people. So museums offer a space that frames it and gives a context.

They understand their sense of time is dedicated to being in the museum. A lot of the time with exhibiting on the go, for example, VR/AR people are kind of in the middle of something else or not really necessarily dedicating time to it. This kind of offers a frame for understanding and processing the piece. Also, it solves just a major accessibility issue, so that’s a major win.

The fact that museums are open to this stuff, and are including them in the exhibitions, and making it available, I think that’s great. I think there’s a lot of room for growth and experimentation within that. Obviously, getting this kind of equipment is quite expensive, and that makes it more challenging. But if they’re open to having some sort of space where people can kind of freely experiment with different projects, or try different things, that’s really cool, and will allow the medium to become even better.

Because when people start to see this stuff and actually experience it, it finally gives understanding to why it’s cool. You can talk about VR all you want, but until you go into a virtual world that takes your breath away, or causes you to think when you get home and reflect on it, you can’t really fully understand how cool or amazing it is as a medium.

I mean, as a creative person, it’s just limitless the amount of stuff that you could do or create for people to experience. So that’s really compelling.

Desi González: That’s amazing. And I think that’s a really good note for us to end on, that idea that museums can be the space to open up a new medium and new worlds to visitors. That medium that we’re talking about this time is virtual reality, but we’ve been doing this for years, and years, and years. This kind of opening up new wonders. So Paisley, thank you so much for joining us.

Paisley Smith: No problem.

Desi González: It’s been an amazing conversation, and I have a hundred more questions I could ask you, but we are running out of time. One last question to wrap up, if people want to learn more and get in touch with you, what would be the best way to contact you?

Paisley Smith: I am very reachable on the Internet. I have a website, which is just, and I have an email. My email is on there, and you can send me an email. Or you could connect with me on Instagram or Twitter, all of those ways of getting in touch are great. I wanted to say thank you to both of you for having me. It was so nice talking to you today. It’s so cool that you read the article and got in touch with me.

Suse Anderson: Awesome. Paisley, thank you so mush. This has been amazing, and I’m going to have to go back and listen to it all again just to take it in.

Paisley Smith: Thank you so much.

Desi González: Yeah, thanks.

Suse Anderson: Desi, thank you so much for joining me today as a cohost on Museopunks, talking about VR experiences in museums. It has been so great to have your perspective and to have you really hold my hand, virtually, as we navigate this territory. Because I think you bring such a thoughtfulness to the way that you’ve been approaching these questions and approaching this topic.

Desi González: Well, thank you so much. It’s great to hear that. It’s been an interesting thing for me to explore. One thing that in my role at the Warhol Museum, which I’m wrapping up right now, we’ve been thinking back. Andy Warhol was an artist who always explored the medium of his time. So what would it mean for us to do a virtual reality experience? I think you really do need to probe these questions really deeply. It’s not just about throwing anything up, but rather figuring out what kind of works with the story you want to tell, and does the medium afford you.

Suse Anderson: Yeah, I think that’s a really important point. And that, as you say, having a superficial engagement is not going to be the thing that makes our worthwhile museum experience of VR either. Experimentation is great, and we should absolutely be doing it, but we also need to be aware that there are many factors that come into something like this.

That it’s not as simple as just creating the thing itself. There are many layers in terms of perspective within the films, but also those settings, those contexts, these questions about consent when putting the headset on people or allowing them to put on. There are multiple layers that come into what a successful VR experience is.

Desi González: Right. And what is the role of the museum within all of it, right? Well, especially when we think about something like, this is an artwork or an experience that requires such intimacy that invades, that goes right into someone’s more personal spaces. So how can we, as museums, do this in a way that’s respectful and ethical.

Suse Anderson: Yeah, absolutely. It has been so great to talk to you. Now, I’m going to do a little shout-out myself saying, hey everyone! It turns out that Desi is going to be doing consulting work, so you should hire her. Boy, was that a nicely timed coincidence to this podcast. It was not the heart of it, but I do think that anyone whose interest has been peaked in Desi’s thinking and her work, now would be a good time to be checking out what’s she is doing because she is available. Am I right?

Desi González: Yep.

Suse Anderson: That’s fantastic. So we did cover in the last episode where people can get in contact with you, but in case anyone is listening to this episode who did not hear that episode, where can people find you?

Desi González: Two ways that I think someone could best find me. The first is through twitter. My handle is @desigonz. You can also visit my website. It’s

Suse Anderson: That is great. Museopunks is presented every month by the American Alliance of Museums. You can connect with me on twitter @museopunks or @shineslike and check out the extended show notes at And of course, you can subscribe any time at iTunes or Stitcher.



Desi González

Desi writes, researches, and makes things at the intersection of art and technology. Her most recent position was leading digital engagement at the Andy Warhol Museum. Before that, she designed educational tech at La Victoria Lab in Peru, developed interpretive experiences at the Museum of Modern Art, and managed a kids website at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Her writing has been featured in publications including Art in America, Art Papers, Indiewire, and The Brooklyn Rail.
Connect w/Desi on Twitter


Michael Haley Goldman

Michael is Director of the Future Projects in the Levine Institute for Holocaust Education at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Future Projects is a small, collaborative team designed to research, prototype, and explore emerging technologies that can transform Holocaust memorialization and education.
Connect w/Michael on Twitter

Kai Frazier

Kai is a historian, and innovative educator passionate about utilizing technology to provide inclusive opportunities and increased exposure in cultural settings for people of color.
Before creating her virtual reality startup, Curated x Kai, she worked with several museums including the U.S Holocaust Memorial Museum & the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture. Kai is now a fellow in Facebook’s 2018 Oculus Launch Pad which provides virtual reality creators from underrepresented backgrounds resources to ensure diversity of thought in the VR ecosystem.
Connect w/Kai on Twitter

Paisley Smith

Paisley is a Canadian filmmaker & virtual reality creator based in Los Angeles and Vancouver. Smith is the creator of Homestay, a personal VR documentary produced by the NFB Interactive Studio with Jam3. Homestay was selected for the IDFA DocLab2017. She is the recipient of the 2018 Sundance Institute and Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Fellowship for her forthcoming work Unceded Territories: VR a collaboration with acclaimed artist and VR pioneer Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, with support from Creative British Columbia. In addition, Paisley is a visiting artist at the University of Southern Interactive Media Division’s Mobile & Environmental Media Lab. Smith holds an MFA from the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. She is an admin of the thriving Women in VR/AR Facebook group, with over 10,000 members of the emerging technology community.
Connect w/Paisley on Twitter

Show Notes

When the Headset Comes Off: VR at Museums in 2017
Into Iñárritu: How CARNE y ARENA sets the bar for how VR should be experienced (and how to push it even further!)
Inside Out
For My Son
Curated x Kai
Prototype # 1 – Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial
From Empathetic Understanding to Engaged Witnessing: Encountering Trauma in the Holocaust Classroom

To learn more about integrating Virtual Reality into museum experiences, register for “Immersion in Museums: AR, VR or Just Plain R?”, an Alliance convening to be held September 6-7, 2018, hosted by the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Presenting Sponsor

Museopunks is presented by the American Alliance of Museums.

Graphic Design of the Museopunks logo is by Selena Robleto.
Twitter: @museopunks

Episode 28: Virtually Yours (Part 1) 

If there is a hot technology in museums right now, it is virtual reality–a technology sometimes credited as being the “ultimate empathy machine.” But can VR live up to the hype for museums? What happens when VR technologies are used to recreate or invoke traumatic experiences? What kinds of scaffolding do museums need to provide when preparing a visitor for these kinds of embodied experiences? And how can museums use VR promote representation and inclusion?

In this special two-part episode of Museopunks, Suse and special guest co-host Desi González, explore the realities of working with the virtual. In part one, Michael Haley Goldman speaks on the prototyping being done at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to experiment with VR, while Kai Frazier discusses the work she is doing with her VR start-up CuratedXKai to provide inclusive opportunities and increased exposure in cultural settings for people of colour.

In part two, we take a deep dive into Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s academy-award winning virtual reality installation CARNE y ARENA with VR film-maker Paisley Smith.

Suse Anderson:                Good day. And welcome to Museopunks, the podcast for the progressive museum. My name is Suse Anderson and in this episode I am joined by a special guest co-host, Desi González. Desi, welcome to Museopunks.

Desi Gonzalez:                 Hi. It’s great to be here.

Suse Anderson:                It is so, so great to have you here. Now, you and I have known each other for a couple of years and I have been following your work and your interest in writing and thinking for some time. But before we get into that and why we’re working together on this particular episode, which is focused on virtual reality or VR experiences in museums.

Suse Anderson:                You’re going through something of a career and life change, which meant the bio that I had prepared before this episode is no longer going to be sufficient to describe what’s happening in your world. So, I thought it might be nice for you to just introduce yourself.

Desi Gonzalez:                 Yeah. Totally. I have about a week left as the manager of digital engagement at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And that’s a week left at the time of this recording. Probably not at the time that people will listen to this.

Suse Anderson:                Probably not.

Desi Gonzalez:                 At which point I am moving to Austin, Texas with my partner, who is starting graduate school. In my move there I’m planning to consult with cultural institutions and non-profits and kind of the run of experience design and digital strategy. We’re still interested in staying in the cultural space. In my past I’ve had other gigs kind of on a trajectory towards kind of marrying digital and art together, art and technology.

Desi Gonzalez:                 I spent some time in Lima, Peru working on educational technology. Worked in interpretation at the Museum of Modern Art and my very first digital project was managing a kid’s website at the Whitney Museum in New York. So it’s been really great to be so lucky to work with such wonderful cultural institutions.

Suse Anderson:                Yeah. Absolutely. I think it is that marrying of technology, but also art and art thinking that is one of the things that so got me interested in you and your work way back when. I can’t even remember exactly when we first actually met, but I remember following along the writing you’ve been doing and the thinking you’ve been doing for some years.

Suse Anderson:                It was actually one of those pieces, a piece about VR experiences in museums that you had written for Art in America, which is what inspired me to want to talk to you and have you as a co-host for this episode. So, can you talk a little bit about what you were writing about and thinking about in that piece in Art in America? But also, why VR has become this topic of such interest? Why it really is the hot topic in museum technology at the moment?

Desi Gonzalez:                 Sure. Yeah. So that piece, my editor at Art in America asked me if I was interested in kind of examining … It was the end of the year, end of 2017, asked me to examine an aspect of technology that museums or cultural institutions were really talking about. I wanted to write about virtual reality because it’s been a topic that keeps coming up over and over again at least at the museum technology conferences, if not kinds of wider museum conversation.

Desi Gonzalez:                 Then it’s coming up at these conferences because it’s also a big topic across industries. So, virtual reality, which is where you wear a headset usually that totally occludes your vision and you’re transported to kind of a different world. The devices often respond to your movement, so you’re moving around that space in this new world. You can often interact with objects. It’s something that’s been around for a long time, at least since the ’80s and thinkers and technologists have imagined it for even longer.

Desi Gonzalez:                 But virtual reality has in recent years, really it’s been making kind of a comeback and a big splash because the technology has become affordable, affordable for both consumers and artists and developers and people who just want to play around with it. It’s become much more affordable for them to try it out. Of course, it’s not in everyone’s hands. It’s not like the way that we all have TV sets or we all have mobile phones in our pockets, but we’re getting closer to there.

Desi Gonzalez:                 In recent years we’ve seen from really big productions of virtual reality that requires a really specialized headset and you might have to download software, you’re tethered to a computer to use it, all the way to Mobile VR experiences. So where you can take your own phone and put it in something like a Google cardboard headset and experience it right at home. So, this proliferation of virtual reality that we’re seeing, I think there’s a lot of hype and people just trying to figure out what is this medium and what can we do with it, how can it be used, not just for games, but also for industry and for art and all sorts of things. And museums are also wondering what that means for us. How we can use it to accomplish our missions.

Suse Anderson:                Yes. Absolutely. We have actually three amazing guests to break this down. For those who are regular listeners to this show, you will know that we often explore an issue with two guests, but when Desi and I were talking about this episode, there were really a couple of different aspects that we wanted to explore. We wanted to explore what this is from a museum perspective. We wanted to explore what it is if you’re an institution who wants to play with these technologies, but who doesn’t necessarily have huge resources. And we also were really thinking about things like the embodied experience, of what we need to do to create spaces. To create the right sensory environment for people who are going into these virtual reality spaces often for the first time.

Suse Anderson:                So that has led this to a slightly experimental mood for this episode because we’re going to do it as a two part episode. We have some really interesting guests, many of whom … In fact, I think, Desi, you really came through with recommendations on who should be in this episode. So in part one we’re going to be talking to Michael Haley Goldman, who is at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, about the prototyping work they have been doing with VR.

Suse Anderson:                As well as talking to Kai Frazier, who has her own VR startup called Curated by Kai. And Kai is a former museum worker and is an historian, who’s actually doing VR work to try and think about inclusion and representation and taking museum experiences and cultural experiences at school kids, which is amazing. Do you want to kick us off and introduce part two and tell us who we’ll hear in part two of the episode?

Desi Gonzalez:                 Yeah. In part two we’re going to talk to someone who’s a practitioner in the VR world, an artist named Paisley Smith, who has her own practice, but she’s really in … well talking a little bit about her perspective as a VR filmmaker and what that language means to her, but we actually really just take a deep dive into another work by Alejandro Iñárritu, who is a director who released his Academy Award-winning virtual reality installation Carne y Arena.

Desi Gonzalez:                 It’s been on view in Los Angeles and other places around the world and has really kind of changed the game in terms of virtual reality experiences. So she’s going to give us a really deep dive into that and by looking at that one installation or exhibition, we kind of understand the ins and outs of what it means to present a virtual reality work in a cultural institution.

Suse Anderson:                Yeah. Absolutely. Desi, your perspectives on this so invaluable. I know this in advance because we’ve already done these interviews and I know the questions you ask, but I am really excited to explore this with you and I think we might as well just get into the discussions.

Desi Gonzalez:                 Great. Let’s do it.

Suse Anderson:                Michael Haley Goldman is director of future projects in the Levine Institute for Holocaust Education at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Future Projects is a small collaborative team designed to research, prototype and explore emerging technologies that can transform Holocaust memorialization and education. Michael, welcome to Museopunks.

Michael H.G.:                  Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.

Suse Anderson:                It’s so great to have you here. So we’re talking about VR, virtual reality, today. It has become one of the trending topics in museum technology conferences and conversations. After years of being sort of a tantalizing possibility, we’re now seeing more and more museums starting to adopt this. But before we really get into talking about its potential and its challenges for museums, can you talk a little bit about how the Holocaust Memorial Museum has been using VR and why the museum was drawn to it in the first place?

Michael H.G.:                  I think it’s a really good question, partially because when you say the VR and Holocaust Museums, it’s not something that is an automatic assumption for a lot of people. I think I should say that we’ve been experimenting on kind of anything in the range of virtual environment, including VR, very much on trying it to understand how it fits into our institution.

Michael H.G.:                  We haven’t made massive investments in it yet. We haven’t tried to take it to a huge number of people. We really have been trying to pick small projects that help us understand how this emerging, more affordable, more readily available, more well-known technology can fit into the kind of things we do. One example is we’ve been doing some 360 with the public. We are doing some more immersive spaces with the public, but all in a very, very small fraction of the people we work with to really improve our understanding.

Desi Gonzalez:                When you say you’re doing 360 and more immersive spaces, can you maybe describe it so our listener gets an understanding of what that might be like, if they were to wear a headset or experience that themselves?

Michael H.G.:                  Yes. So 360 video, we’ve been using phone-based virtual reality. This is, in this case, Samsung headsets using Samsung phones. And we’ve been working with the public to watch a video shot in full 360, full surround video that ties into one of our small exhibits that’s been opened for some time. There’s a museum exhibit that talks about Syria right now and when we have the staffing to make it available to the public, this short video that we did not create ourselves, is something that kind of follows up as part of that exhibit experience.

Michael H.G.:                  So for most people, they would come out of the main exhibit space, they would be offered the opportunity to see this film and staff would help them get into the small headset where they would watch about a five and a half minute film about the story of a particular Syrian refugee.

Suse Anderson:                It’s interesting that you mention stuff helping them get into the headset. I think it’s likely for a number of your visitors, this will be their first experience with VR. So what are the things that you do in terms of introducing them to medium? What kind of scaffolding do you provide for that experience?

Michael H.G.:                  It’s a really good question and for many people, and we’ve been doing this for probably over a year on and off as we’ve had staffing available, it’s still the first experience in the headset for a lot of the people we talk to. It’s a little bit of an anecdotal evidence because we don’t ask everybody, but we’re not finding as many people being more familiar with the technology as we expected.

Michael H.G.:                  So we usually try to describe it in a pretty short introduction of what they will see and remind them very, very intentionally to look around them. We were really surprised when we started doing this, how many people would not think to turn around and look behind them in 360 film, even though they had the headset on. So there’s a reminder of the fact that things will be all around them, above them, behind them, below them and that it’s a full experience in that they should look around.

Michael H.G.:                  Also because this is the film-based VR 360, it’s not something that they can move around in. We found with younger audiences that they do want to move and trying to keep them seated and safe, is something else we try to prepare them for. That is something that we don’t always succeed in, but we’ve been managing to keep people mostly seated during the experience.

Desi Gonzalez:                That’s really interesting. I think there are two levels in which you can talk about visitor reactions and response. On the one hand, some museums are thinking about virtual reality and just kind of if it’s someone’s first time experience virtual reality, how they respond to this new medium? But then also getting a little bit deeper, how do you respond to this particular experience or that story being told through an immersive medium. I’m wondering if you could tell us a little bit about how visitors have responded to the experiences that you’ve … for example the short video on Syrian refugees, how they’ve responded to that experience and if and how you might be evaluating what’s successful.

Michael H.G.:                  The evaluating is an important part of this and we’ve gone through a variety of different stages, of very informal observation, through some more kind of formal questions and surveys. We haven’t really hit the numbers that I’d want to say anything is really conclusive for any of the questions we’ve been asking and it’s been a bit more of an experiment for us to try to figure out how to dig into the questions that I would like.

Michael H.G.:                  There’s been overwhelmingly a lot of interest, a lot of recognition of things going on and surprisingly, at least from my perspective, deep conversations when we’ve had the time and staff to ask people to talk a lot more about it afterwards. So when we have people coming in, one of the audiences that picks up on this is are high school students. They’re definitely a group that will gravitate towards these headsets when they’re available within the museum. With often very little thought, as far as I can tell, as to what they might be seeing in it.

Michael H.G.:                  From a perspective of somebody who works in Holocaust and genocide content, the idea that you’re in the Holocaust Museum and you’re willing to put something on your face not knowing what you’re going to see is kind of shocking, but-

Desi Gonzalez:                Definitely.

Michael H.G.:                  Only a few times I had one very, very articulate teen stop and say, “Wait, is this going to be something upsetting?” Which is a great question as you’re coming into something like this, but despite that, even when you don’t expect a lot from the audience that’s picking these things up and watching this video, you’ll have some really thoughtful comments and then really some thoughtful conversations with people afterwards when you get the chance.

Michael H.G.:                  So again, this is very anecdotal, but you do get that full range of people who come out of it and definitely I’ve had people burst into tears. I’ve had people who react with a very sincere question that we really don’t know how to answer always, is what can I do about this? Those kinds of reactions definitely come out of the experience, but what we haven’t been able to do in our research so far is really dig into the question of what is the role of novelty in this technology in terms of people’s reaction and what is the role that this film would have if it’s totally flat.

Michael H.G.:                  This is a well-made film. We were very lucky the filmmakers were willing to license that to us. It’s a set of filmmakers that we already had a relationship with and they were going back to do this film and started the conversations with us before they made it and they did a really great job with it. They’re good filmmakers. They did a really great job. What would this be like as a 2D, as a flat D and how would that compare in terms of the reactions we’re getting? We don’t really know for sure, even though we’ve tried to test that in a variety of ways.

Suse Anderson:                Yes. It’s one of the things I’ve been thinking about. Your story of the teenagers who would just put on the headset without even thinking about the content really reminds me a lot of how museums have often been with new technologies. For instance when apps would come around. You know, there was sort of advertising that we have an app, without saying what the content was that you would be getting from the app and why that mattered.

Suse Anderson:                And it really makes me wonder why VR storytelling, why does it become a relevant or useful vehicle for telling particular stories, as opposed to a film or some other form of media. It sounds like that’s one of the things you’re trying to figure out at the Holocaust Museum, but do you have a sense of … Are you trying to use this technology to tell different types of stories or are you more interested in using the technology to see what it can do?

Michael H.G.:                  So I have the luxury of the way that our group is set up in the museum. That we can push without knowing the answer to what this technology is good for. Which doesn’t mean we didn’t have our own theories about what the technology was good for, but part of our job within this institution is to say, “Okay, VR is something that is out there, that people are excited about. What does that mean for us and what are the real affordances and strengths of the technology that we might build into future programs that the institution will do before the institution really gets ready to do that in a big way.”

Michael H.G.:                  So we have a little bit of luxury, but from our point of view the question we were asking were really about presence in space. I think one of the terms you don’t hear enough of when people are talking about virtual technologies, is that it’s very spatial. It’s very much an experience in a place. It’s place-based, which is not something that you hear as much about, but I think it’s really vital to the kinds of stories that can work within this space.

Michael H.G.:                  That creates other problems for us as an institution, in terms of the history and content that we work with, but the other experience we’ve done have been often around ideas of spatialized sound, sometimes projected, room-sized spaces, kind of like caves, but not quite. So when we were using 360 it was really about presence in space. Those were the questions that we were asking along with some of the other experiments we were doing.

Michael H.G.:                  And as we’ve kind of evolved past that question to thinking about other things, the idea of … it’s evolved into a question about role, really is that you have play a different role, I think, within these spatialized experiences, than you play within a role of watching, like you do with 2D video and other kinds of experiences.

Desi Gonzalez:                That’s really fascinating and I really like the way that you’re talking about the affordances of … the experience of the space taking you to a different space, but in many ways museums are already immersive environments. Are you thinking about that? Kind of the way that visitor goes from your museum space to another space, say Syria, or to a refugee camp or to elsewhere. Is that something that’s part of what your team is thinking about?

Michael H.G.:                  Absolutely. I think one of the big partners for these projects has been our excellent exhibitions team here at the museum. They were able to bring in, and we played a very small role in it, but that was really their work, to bring in a project that is not ours, that was created by an outside institution, called The Portals.

Michael H.G.:                  And this was a project that I include in a lot of our conversations around virtual reality. It’s really a simple concept where they constructed what’s more or less a shipping container inside the museum. The shipping container includes more or less video conferencing technology, but they try to mask it. They try to make sure everybody is life size and the space that you create within the shipping container is very neutral and minimizes the sense of screens that you’re watching.

Michael H.G.:                  Our exhibitions team and our committee for the prevention of genocide was using it to hook up visitors here in the museum to Syrian refugee camps in several different locations. It was a very a similar kind of issue. It’s not what we usually think of as a virtual reality, but it’s building on some of the same concepts about how does the technology create a space that you’re in.

Michael H.G.:                  And what was really important in that project, at least in my perspective, is that it was a neutral space where everybody voluntarily went into that space to have a conversation and it wasn’t a public conversation. So the people who created it, Shared Studios, they were interested in it being a private conversation between two people on different sides of the planet and not being something that would be politicized and not being something that would be public and on display.

Michael H.G.:                  If you think about that in terms of 360 film, it’s a similar issue. What I liked about the way that this particular 360 film was shot is that it put you in a position of hearing the story of someone else on their own terms, on their own turf, on their own space. So how much can you take a person out of it being them bringing somebody else into this neutral space of the museum, or not so neutral space at the museum, as the case may be, but instead giving you an opportunity to step into the storyteller space.

Suse Anderson:                Michael, VR, virtual reality is often called an empathy machine. It’s linked really closely with these ideas of empathy and think that’s what you invoking as you talk about this. It’s often used to recreate or invoke somewhat traumatic experiences as a way of really immersing the audience or the participant in another person’s reality.

Suse Anderson:                Now, the Holocaust Museum must be one of the most highly attuned museums to the challenges of dealing with trauma, but are there pitfalls or what are the pitfalls and the potential pitfalls of using virtual reality to address traumatic subject matter?

Michael H.G.:                  Absolutely. A huge question for us and really kind of at a core of what we’ve been wrestling with as we’ve been exploring this. Empathy. I’m not always convinced empathy is necessarily the right word for the way that we approach this educationally. I think some of the debate around empathy is kind of taking a step out of where some of the issues are.

Michael H.G.:                  I have been quoting and misquoting this great little paper by a professor of religion in California named Gubkin and it’s really a look at, without thinking about virtual reality, is what are the pitfalls of empathy as a tactic within Holocaust education. Now, one of the reasons I like this is that it’s a very approachable evaluation of the problems that empathy might bring to looking at the Holocaust and it resonates a lot with some of the internal conversations we’ve had for decades here.

Michael H.G.:                  One of the things that Gubkin points to is these possible problems on both sides and looking at traumatic content with empathy. Even though empathy is a normal technique as far as I understand it, for looking at religious studies. She points out that not only is there the problem of potentially minimizing the experiences of the victims in a traumatic content by using empathy as a technique. There’s also the possibility of minimizing the experiences of the students who are looking at a traumatic situation.

Michael H.G.:                  So to explain that a little better, the idea that if you’re looking at traumatic content you don’t want people to over empathize with for example, a Holocaust survivor, because as much as they might empathize with that survivor, they really don’t know what it feels like to be in a transport from France to Auschwitz. They don’t really know what it’s like to be in a camp and you really don’t want them minimizing that person’s real experience and real trauma by thinking that they do.

Michael H.G.:                  On the other side, she points out, and this is something that I hadn’t bumped into before. That she had found students that were minimizing their own experiences and comparison and she tells the kind of heartbreaking story of a student who lost a friend recently to cancer, but she was in some sense beating herself up for being upset about this, when in comparison to the suffering of Holocaust survivors, she shouldn’t be worried about this. So she was minimizing her own real life experiences by trying to empathize with that traumatic experience in a different way.

Michael H.G.:                  What Gubkin suggests and what resonates really well with our institution as a memorial space is this concept of engaged witnessing. That you want to be engaged but you want to serve as a witness to the trauma of others, not really take that trauma upon yourself. And witnessing is such a central part of the Holocaust memorialization, Holocaust education. It’s a very, very familiar place for us to approach some of these issues.

Michael H.G.:                  So as we look back at this film about Syria, one of the things that we were very fortunate in is that you were placed in this 360 film not as the person who experiences the trauma, but as the person who is really witnessing this person’s story in their own terms and from their own perspective. And that witnessing role is a really interesting role to play as you think about the way that you can talk about traumatic experiences in these kinds of environments.

Desi Gonzalez:                That’s really fascinating. And that idea, when you’re talking about the affordance of VR, is that you place the viewer as a role more actively involved than just a viewer, but in some ways you’re still not that person who’s experiencing it, you’re an engaged witness. I really like that.

Desi Gonzalez:                Early, at the beginning of the conversation you talked about how the future projects team hasn’t invested a whole lot of resources to VR yet in a really big way, but you’re right now thinking more R&D, what the role of VR could be for your museum. And I’m wondering, in the kind of thinking that you’ve been doing, for other institutions or folks who are thinking about dabbling with VR, what are the practical implications of bringing virtual reality to the museum? Who can do this? Is it only museums that have lots of resources? Or is it something that could be done by all kinds of institutions?

Michael H.G.:                  I think from an experimental level it’s really much cheaper and totally worthwhile to try things out on your own. Recognizing, fully recognizing that you’re not going to create the highly polished, film quality necessarily, that you might want for a larger audience, but I think it’s totally worthwhile to try these things out on your own. Largely for internal purposes. Largely for really understanding in a more immediate way what these kind of affordances are.

Michael H.G.:                  We were able to buy, and they’re even cheaper now than they were a couple years, buy an inexpensive 360 camera, send out staff that make films anyway to actually try it out. Again, this is a luxury and I am totally aware of the fact that we are in a really unusual spot internally, as not every institution feels like they have the time in the staffing for this, but I think we often miss the importance of really getting your hands dirty with these things in a way that not only you learn and that you learn with your audiences.

Michael H.G.:                  Audiences are totally willing to try things out, from our experience, and give you real feedback on things that are not polished, that are not the kind of thing that you’d want to be putting in front of a huge audience. So, we’ve been doing that kind of every step we can and I’m going to say it one more time, incredibly fortunate to have that opportunity here, and I know that’s not the case or not everyone feels like with the case.

Michael H.G.:                  The next problem of this though, is that if you can understand it, it’s how do you scale up to something that is going to be of the quality that you might be put into your exhibitions or into your web content and other areas where you are putting the money. A lot of these things are not inexpensive. The difference between us doing rough and ready prototypes to doing a full scale volumetric walk around VR experience is pretty huge.

Michael H.G.:                  And that is something that’s a reality that is probably not going to change immediately and that I don’t think most institutions are ready to do, because I don’t know that they’ve spent the time exploring it. We are still in that debate about whether we feel like that’s the right thing for us to do next, now that we’ve done all this really interesting study and learning with audiences, whether it is the right thing for us to do next.

Michael H.G.:                  But you can’t take it on lightly. Not only is there the cost of production and going for the high production values, there’s the cost of running this with the public. My understanding, that institutions that have tried more spatial volumetric virtual reality in their galleries have about a 1:1 ratio, one staff person for every person who sees it. That’s a pretty big investment just in staff time and availability that institutions really need to think about if they’re going to really try to use this on site.

Suse Anderson:                Yeah, absolutely. I think getting to those practicalities is really important and it does make this something worth, as you say, experimenting with, but figuring out its value to the museum and to the audience. Michael, we are almost about to wrap up here in our conversation, but one thing I’d just like to ask before you leave, what is one of the VR pieces that you’ve experienced that you found to be really powerful and effective for you and what made it so powerful?

Michael H.G.:                  It’s a good question, and I’ve seen a bunch of things here and there. One of the first VR experiences I saw and one of the ones that had a big impact was Giant, which is a fictional story based on a real life kind of knowledge of the war in Yugoslavia. And it’s a really simple storytelling piece where the additions to just a simple headset is really just the fact that they put base speakers underneath the stool that you’re sitting in, and so you feel the rumbles of what turned out to be artillery in the distance later on.

Michael H.G.:                  But what I liked about it, was that it was, again in retrospect, a very spatialized story that they were telling. It was a small family in the basement of an apartment building and you feel that space and you feel that enclosure and the story is building off of that enclosed space. So it was the first time I really started thinking, I think, of that spatial quality with this technology and started thinking about the implications of that.

Suse Anderson:               Yeah. That’s great. I will see if I can find a link to that and put that in the show notes. Michael, if people do want to get in contact with you and find out a bit more about the work you’re doing in this area or just in general, how can they do so? What’s the best way?

Michael H.G.:                  It’s terrible, but email is still the best way and is always welcome.

Suse Anderson:               That’s fantastic. Michael, thank you so, so much. This has been a fascinating discussion.

Michael H.G.:                  Always great to talk about and really good questions. So thanks so much for having me.

Desi Gonzalez:                Thanks so much. It was great time chatting.

Desi Gonzalez:                Kai Fraizer is a historian and an innovative educator passionate about utilizing technology to provide inclusive opportunities and increased exposure in cultural settings for people of color. Before creating her virtual reality startup, Curated by Kai, she worked with several museums including the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Desi Gonzalez:                Kai is now a fellow in Facebook’s 2018 Oculus Launch Pad program which provides virtual reality creators from under-represented backgrounds, the resources to ensure diversity of thought and the VR ecosystem. Kai, we’re so excited to have you with us today because you’ve created this really interesting startup, which is aimed at bringing virtual reality into the classroom. You’re really focused on exposing students to new ideas, locations and sounds. I was wondering, just to start us off, where did that idea for Curated by Kai come from and why have you focused on VR and AR as core to the learning experience?

Kai Frazier:                      Sure. Well, first thank you so much for having me. How I got into Curated by Kai is just my background. So, I worked with students for about 15 years and I was a history teacher. When I worked with those students we lacked resources for older students. So, I teach 7th-12th grade. So there’s not too much for that age range to talk about history.

Kai Frazier:                     When I left the classroom I went to working with history museums and they weren’t too many programs geared at reaching back out to the under-served communities that could really benefit from it. So, since my students couldn’t visit museums and museums weren’t going to do outreach to my students, I decided to do it myself.

Kai Frazier:                    So Curated by Kai, what I do is I film the diverse and representative memorials, exhibitions, monuments in 360 and then I bring it right back to the students and we adapt it to their curriculum.

Suse Anderso                Kai, when you’re creating the VR experience for students who might not have visited a museum or cultural institution before, how do you then set the scene? I mean, do you explore the space of the museum? Do you go straight to the objects and the stories that you’re trying to tell? What is it that you do that actually brings the museum experience to life for the students?

Kai Frazier:                    For the students and the working of history it’s pretty much started with their own experiences and using that for a base. A lot of times, when I’m teaching history, they have no context of what’s happening and they’ve never even heard of these places or know they existed. For example, when teaching the Holocaust for my US history class, they can’t even fathom that this could happen, let alone that actually did happen. So you can’t really just start with a museum.

Kai Frazier:                    So what we do is we try to start with experiences, like maybe they know what it feels like to be black and brown student to be discriminated against or be boycotted against or to feel just unhappy with the way the world is going and because of the way you look or at least you have. We try to start with that and then find the connection so they have a different entry point into the exhibition and the experience.

Desi Gonzalez:                That’s really fantastic. One of the things that I really loved when I reading about your work is for your pilot project, the VR experience that you created for the Martin Luther King Jr. Day, you return to the middle school where you used to teach to conduct user testing and I’d love to hear what’s it like when students put on that headset, when they get transported to this new world, what did you learn from user testing and what surprises you when students are using the medium?

Kai Frazier:                    That school was very interesting. That’s my first school that I had my first history classroom, and the challenge with that class is that these are my DREAMers, these are my undocumented students and they’ve been through a lot. With that being said, in my classroom I’m so used to teaching those students and they have no idea what I’m saying. And it’s hard when you’re dealing with that.

Kai Frazier:                    So when I’m working with museums and they make these beautiful exhibitions and maybe it’s not adapted or they’ve never thought about these audiences that don’t get to go to the museum, that’s an issue. So what we did is we filmed the MLK memorial in Washington DC and then I actually went back first to my school to have some of my former students, which I taught when they were in seventh grade and they were now seniors at that point, go back and record the audio to the average DREAMer.

Kai Frazier:                    One of my students who was just learning English and I taught her, she was from Vietnam, go through and actually say they’re speaking English, so you can hear her accent in it, and then I had one of my students from Guatemala who came here also in the sixth grade and I didn’t even realize he had just came to the country because his English was so good when I taught him. So he recorded the speech in Spanish for me.

Kai Frazier:                    It was nice. It wasn’t so much … When the kids put their headset on, it’s great that they’re seeing it, but the big thing for me that makes me happy is that they can understand it. So that was his imprint.

Suse Anderson:              No, I’m really interested. Do you always, then, try to incorporate the voices of the children? I mean, you mentioned bringing their experiences in as your starting point, and I know that one of the things you try and to do is actually tailor the content that you’re creating to the students that you’re working with and to the audiences you’re working with. How important is it, that you are getting their voices, not just then at the user testing level, but also in a production context?

Kai Frazier:                      So getting their voices wasn’t originally planned, but I couldn’t speak Spanish and I had to find some way to do it because I can’t do it, doesn’t mean it has to stop for them. So I just started to ask people who could record and my students came to the rescue for that. So it was very nice when they hear their own voice, and even though it’s great to hear the Spanish, what I really enjoyed is hearing the English and the broken accent of my Vietnamese student and having those together to kind of paint the picture of the different voices that come together to make this journey.

Kai Frazier:                    For them, they were just happy to be included and then we also went to the speech and broke down the language so it was the simplest lines that we could pull out. We skipped over some lines that were maybe … needed a lot more context or were historically relevant to the time, but they couldn’t really understand … idioms and things like that don’t work when the kids just have no reference … they’re not from the country.

Kai Frazier:                      So we put it the simplest so they can understand it and really brought the comprehension to their level, which is rarely done for museum, and usually start at the high level, they start off with like, “In 1945, when World War II ended …” And they don’t have any context for it. So we kind of start on their level and meet them where they are.

Desi Gonzalez:                That’s really fantastic and I love that you’re using these 360 virtual reality, reality experience to open your audiences, students in classrooms, up to museums, but you’re also incorporating them in the media making. That’s really fantastic. One critique that I feel often comes up during discussions about how museums can implement mixed reality and at their institutions, is that virtual reality and augmented reality are really expensive endeavors and I’m so drawn to your work because you’re able to bring in this new media in a hands-on and affordable way.

Desi Gonzalez:                We see that very clearly with the way that you’re incorporating students in the media making. So, for institutions, whether it’s a museum or a classroom, that has a smaller budget and wants to experiment with 360 photo and video and VR, where would you recommend they start, both in terms of kind of financial resources, equipment, the skillsets they need et cetera.

Kai Frazier:                      I do classroom trainings right now because the tech only works in the classrooms if teachers know how to use it. And I give them a lot of like options to start practically using VR in their classroom. One of the simplest ones we do is a 360 video on their smart board or they’re displaying the content for their class.

Kai Frazier:                    So they can take a video they find off YouTube and they can … For example, we just filmed the Obama portraits. So they can take that video and they can turn around for kids. They can see all the different angles for it and that’s free. So, if they are doing headsets, we start very low cost. So, we help teachers with grant writing stuff. Here’s some terminology, here’s some websites and here are headsets that cost $10. So, here is a way that you can start at a very low cost.

Kai Frazier:                      But then a lot of schools, what I haven’t planned for is a lot of schools do have these very expensive budgets and that’s not what I’m used to working with. So for those school, they have lots of different options, but for the very … most of the teacher paying out their pocket for things, we try to give them free, low-cost options and then actually bringing down the content so kids understand it in their world.

Suse Anderson:              Yeah. Kai, I know that you’re talking a lot about inclusion and representation, these things being at the heart of your work and really speaking to students that often don’t … they’re not spoken to, that they don’t have things in their language, that they don’t have things that are related to them in their life experiences. For museum educators who do want to use say VR technology to empower students and young adults, what are the questions that they should be asking to guide their work?

Kai Frazier:                    I think what’s not happening is… my thing with working with museum educators is very few of them were spending time in the classrooms or with the students. So they’re making materials based on what they think the students will like. They also don’t want to spend a lot of time asking, “Who is our audience?” Because students are not the same across the board.

Kai Frazier:                      So to make more inclusive materials for their VR experiences, I hope that they maybe take some time to test it. We always do like a business model and testing, where we build the whole thing and then we bring it to the audience and then we test it, but instead the way that I do my prototype testing is I get the small version out, I bring it to the school, see the feedback they have, I go back and make edits. So, I am really putting my audience first.

Desi Gonzalez:                That’s really fascinating, the bit about a lot of people creating the technology are not in the classroom themselves, so how can they even know their users. And I’m really going to take that to heart in my own work. I’m wondering if there are examples of virtual reality, 360 video, other kinds of mixed reality that you really admire in terms of the way they’re working for an educational purpose and being inclusive as they do this? If you have anything you can point us to.

Kai Frazier:                      Sure. Let me think. I’ve seen a lot. I know one that I’ll mention because I think it’s in DC or is leaving DC, is it Alejandro Iñárritu… his last name I’m going to slaughter. And we went through his Carne y Arena VR experience. So I have got to still … that’s one I got to see at LACMA in LA.

Desi Gonzalez:                I’m so jealous.

Kai Frazier:                      Oh really?

Desi Gonzalez:                I’m so jealous.

Suse Anderson:              Me too. I’ve been trying to get in and I haven’t been able to get into it.

Kai Frazier:                      I got in LA. That’s what it was. I had a friend that worked at LACMA that I’ve known since middle school and he was so kind to send me out me out a pass. Because I got to go in from then. For that one, it was very … I had a lot of mixed feelings about this one, but it’s one that does highlight a very relevant topic. It’s the way it works. If you haven’t been, is you kind of you go in to a holding room, a freezer, you take your shoes off there and you’re sitting in a room for no really amount of time waiting for a buzzer to go off, a red buzzer, an alarm to go off.

Kai Frazier:                    So, that already right there is nerve wracking. That’s not even the VR. That’s just sitting in the room waiting for the experience to start. Once the buzzer goes off, I remember walking into a room and I couldn’t even see the people to hand me the headsets. It’s large room, orange lights. I had to walk towards their voices. When the headset went on, it’s supposed to put you in a VR experiment of migrants crossing the southern border.

Kai Frazier:                      I remember it starting off with like flood lights and migrants almost passing out because they were so exhausted all around me, and the Border Patrol and guns in my face and I remember it being so intense I had to remember that my privilege is being able to take off the headphones and I had to stop right there because it was too much for me … And mind you, I worked at the Holocaust Museum at that point. And that was just extremely, extremely intense.

Kai Frazier:                      When it ended the situation ended with, or more experience ended with living portraits of each of the people who actually end the VR experience, because they’re real people that they animated for those … and hearing and watching their stories. And I thought that was the most powerful part to me, but when you put somebody into something that intense, my critique was they dropped you into the regular museum afterwards, with nothing.

Kai Frazier:                      I was so disturbed and didn’t even want to talk … I don’t even want to talk about it. It’s a lot that just happened, just now. And maybe that is the artist’s attention to just have you make a personal change or maybe it was to tell others about what you saw, but I think there’s something to be said when you’re working of difficult histories, that you have to allow people the time to process what they’ve seen.

Suse Anderson:               Well, that’s an interesting question. I wonder, for you, when you’re dealing with history and with histories, does VR offer you different affordances for the teaching of history, then might otherwise be available in the classroom?

Kai Frazier:                      For me, yes. I did tremendously … I’d never tried to recreate anything. I tried just do 360 filmings. I don’t want to alter the history, but for me, we’re talking … Actually I was rushing back from the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco because they have exhibition Divine Bodies that highlights Hinduism and Buddhism. In world history religions are a huge part of it and the trade of spreading of the religion, but for parents who don’t know that, I used to get a lot of angry phone calls about, “Why are you doing this to my kid? Why are you teaching my kids about Buddha or Christianity?”

Kai Frazier:                      And the kids were coming to my classroom with their parents’ preconceived notions. I remember the hardest thing to teach was Islam and my students would tell me like, “We can’t learn about Islam. My mom says it’s terrorism.” So when they don’t have a reference point from this. This is how you get like you’re crazy, racist and your people who have these no empathy because they’ve never been exposed to different people, ideas, sounds.

Kai Frazier:                      So example, the call to prayer for Islam. I would show my video and they would say like, “Is this the Lion King?” We talked through it about why it sounded different, but to be able to see the practice and the love that’s being exchanged and the similarities in religions and how it’s spreading over trade routes and how it grew empires, I can do that in VR. That’s very hard to do with students when they have no context.

Kai Frazier:                    And a lot of my students were from Mexico for example and a lot my students thought that they were Catholic and they didn’t consider themselves Christians because they had never had that conversation. So it was even hard trying to break down the fact that Catholicism falls under Christianity. This is what happens when you’re like super, super closed off and you’ve never been exposed to other things.

Kai Frazier:                    So VR, for me, is like as soon as I started really get into it I could see that as a way that I could let my students do their own critical thinking because they can now make their own opinions, now that they got to explore different worlds they’ve never seen.

Desi Gonzalez:                That’s really interesting. I wanted to ask you a question from a … responding to a quote that’s on your website. It says, “How can a student aspire to an opportunity if they don’t know it exists?” And I know that you’ve … In my conversations with Suse, we’ve talked about that you talked about your struggle with whiteness at the museum sector when you worked in museums.

Desi Gonzalez:                In the long tail of your work, how do you hope to inspire students of color to enter into museums? Do you hope to inspire students of color to enter into museums as professionals as much as you want to invite them to be visitors and audiences? Are you thinking about that?

Kai Frazier:                      Yes. Always. I kind of got tired of being at museum conferences and hearing the diversity talk and why aren’t more people of color there. And the reality is, students didn’t even know these jobs exist. And until we start talking at that level, nothing else matters. For example, my students, most of my students are Hispanic and they have cleaning businesses and I used to always think, when I got to the museum world, how many of my students would have loved to be a conservator if they would have been able to transfer their cleaning skills that they’ve known their whole life, add science to it, and been able to clean their own history and artifacts.

Kai Frazier:                      Because the biggest question I got from my black kids is, they can say, “Where am I in the history book?” And I have a few examples to show them, but they’re there. My Hispanic kids, they’re rarely there in US history. And you can look at Arizona right now and there may have banned about 85 books that show diverse histories from The Diary of Anne Frank to The Fire Next Time. You have to almost seek out and fight for the information for them.

Kai Frazier:                    When they don’t have the information about different jobs, what it means to preserve their history and culture, that’s how you get statistics like four percent of blacks working in art museums as professional or six percent Hispanic. And if we’re going to change that, we have to start showing them examples of people in the museums, showing them that they can do it themselves, putting them in those worlds, which is what VR does, and then giving them the tools they need to actually have a career in that. So, at the end of the day they can tell their own stories as opposed to history being his story and who was actually telling the stories in these museum.

Suse Anderson:              Yeah. That’s really beautiful and really important as well. Kai, your work brings together two areas that people might think unrelated, being cutting edge technology and representation and inclusion. Why are you so interested in bridging these two areas? Why has the technology enabled you or how has it enabled you to do this really important work with representation and inclusion?

Kai Frazier:                      When I worked with different museums I began to get frustrated always trying to have people to think bigger and think different viewpoints in their life. Like how would this poster feel to you if nothing like this poster looks like you? Maybe this is not like an inviting site. And a lot of times people are maybe afraid if they see a black male, when a lot of my, maybe black students, if they are in a room full all white people they are nervous and they get scared.

Kai Frazier:                      A lot my Hispanic students had never seen a white or black person when they came to this country. So we don’t take enough time to kind of think of it from their viewpoints. To them, these jobs are just unattainable, these opportunities are unattainable and when I show resources in my classroom, they’re mostly Europeans focused viewpoints for the history. So they already don’t see themselves included in it, but they have to learn it to pass.

Kai Frazier:                      From my personal story, my history teacher gave me John Lewis’ book when I was in high school. And I already knew who John Lewis was, but just being able to read and go through the history and everything he went through and overcoming, I could see an example of somebody who looked like me, grew up like me and overcame it to do great things.

Kai Frazier:                      So I had to take the mindset of, I can keep going back and forth in museum meetings about why it’s important to have representation or marketing, I could keep going to diversity talks at museum conferences, when everybody in the room is not white, which is a problem, you’re just talking to yourself. Or I could actually just take a step out on faith and sell my house and move and just try to do it for myself.

Kai Frazier:                    Because at the end the day I had to realize that if I don’t do it, there’s not many people that are going to do it. And if you are working at the classroom level, you see how big of a difference it is for students to see themselves at an early age in these narratives.

Desi Gonzalez:               That’s really fantastic. To just wrap up our conversation, one final question. Now that you’re not full-time in a museum. Now that you’re kind of in your own startup mode, startup world, what kind of different insights do you have or what are you learning looking into our institutions and our field?

Kai Frazier:                      Unfortunately, the thing that I keep learning, that kind of breaks my heart is like I’ve learned museum’s wrong. I’m working in DC. Everything’s bureaucracy. Everything’s very difficult and we don’t take the time to elevate why are we doing this, we just keep on doing it. When I came to California, it was more of, whatever you need, you can film. Like, we want to help you. How can we help you? Let’s connect you to this museum. It may take me three months to clear a filming in DC. It would take me three hours to clear it in California.

Kai Frazier:                      And I see kids programs, where they’re really reaching out to communities and kids and bringing them in and meeting them where they are. I see them bringing tech in at an earlier level for kids. So it just kind of feels like museums’ done right, who are serving their community. I went to the Oakland Museum. They have Friday night at the museums, where every Friday at the Oakland Museum in California they have an outside community party.

Kai Frazier:                      The one I went to two weekends ago was for PRIDE and they had a group teaching the entire huge crowd how to vogue and how to dance. It was really beautiful to watch it. They had tables set up where they were playing Dominoes or talk about how in black culture Domino’s the way to like sit down, have conversations and catch up, and when they want to keep that history alive. It was like they were going through every single aspect of the culture and serving them and inviting them in a welcoming way that I saw like old Asian men voguing on the floor.

Kai Frazier:                      Which I would never have seen. I was like, “Look at him duck walking. This is beautiful.” But coming into DC, I will never see … Even the museum I went to on East Coast, New York, Atlanta, DC. It’s just been barriers to entry. It’s just, gatekeepers have had to find some way to manipulate around to bring the content out to students because I know they’ll benefit from it. Here it feels like they already get it. And that’s what is kind of my insight that I struggle with daily and my eyes…

Kai Frazier:                      My eyes water when these museums in California tell me like, “What do you need? How can we help?” And I wish that all museums would kind go there. And it doesn’t matter how much money you have. It’s just thinking about why are we doing this, why are we here today and let’s do it, let’s serve the communities and together we’ll all get better together.

Desi Gonzalez:                That’s really fascinating. Just a follow-up question, do you think that’s a geographic thing or is it a cultural thing? Or is it that the museums in California are really influenced kind of by the industry around it?

Kai Frazier:                      I think that in … I know in San Francisco, Silicon Valley field over here. It just feels like they treat people … The weirdest thing moving here is that I can walk down the street and somebody regardless of how I look and how they look will stop me and say, “Hello.” And I’m so used to walking through this city and being invisible.

Kai Frazier:                    So, taking that I had to maneuver very differently in DC to get things accomplished. Here, they’re actually … They do outreach and everything they do from just walking up to me and saying, “Hello.” And then, “How can we help?” So I wish it was more of a proactive outreach happening. And outreach in every single level. So I feel welcome. My first museum I went to here.

Kai Frazier:                      One of my friends from DC who worked with me at the Holocaust Museum was visiting with me and we went to the MoAD, the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco and my eyes literally watered in the first minute there because they all just came out to say hello. I didn’t tell them I was coming. Just a, “Hey, I just wanted to look at some things.” And they were so kind and rolled out the red carpet and made sure that I had everything I needed and encouraged me to come back. I’ve just never had that ever in a museum experience.

Suse Anderson:              Kai, that’s really inspirational. Although, also a little bit depressing that it was-

Kai Frazier:                    See, that’s how it feels. And I didn’t work in the museum. I was a visitor there. Even one of the guys, I think he’s like the director of development there, just found me on Twitter and engaged me all the time, just talks to me. So it’s not like the, you have to be important, you have to know these people to even get to this level to talk to somebody. It’s, “Hey, we want to hear different voices and we know to do that, we have to have our ears open and change our viewpoint and just be proactive.” So that has been very encouraging and I hope that that idea happens in all museums and not just here in California.

Suse Anderson:              Yeah. Absolutely. Here’s to us spreading that kind of change and that kind of perspective. Kai, if people want to find you, if they’d like to find out more about Curated by Kai and the work that you’re doing or if they’d like to partner with you, what’s the best way that they can get in contact with you?

Kai Frazier:                    Sure. They can just go to my website. My website is www.Curatedx, the letter X, and then Kai, K-A-I. So,

Suse Anderson:              Awesome. Kai, thank you so much for joining us here on Museopunks. It has been fascinating.

Kai Frazier:                    Thank you. My absolute pleasure, Suse. I appreciate it.

Desi Gonzalez:               Thank you so much.

Suse Anderson:              Awesome. Michael and Kai, both doing such interesting work. Desi, I think one of the things that you and I’ve been speaking about with this is, these sort of gaps between these big institutions that we often perceive as having the capacity to do more experimentation and then seeing something like Kai’s work, which is really getting in and trying things and making things happen without that big institutional structure.

Desi Gonzalez:                Right. And I really love that, on the one hand Michael can think really ambitiously with his team about what they might be able to do with virtual reality, but Kai shows us that these new technologies, there are ways that we can use them for educational purposes, in a scrappier, kind of lower budget kind of way and still be experimenting and exploring within the same medium. It’s a really diverse medium, right?

Suse Anderson:              Yeah. Absolutely. And I think one of the things I really liked speaking to Kai was her bringing those students in right at the user testing, but actually having them shape what the experience would become using their voices within the actual experience that she was creating. It also shows that that sense of creation doesn’t have to just be … there’s not just one right way of making VR. There’s ways to include many different voices and perspectives.

Desi Gonzalez:                Right. Right. Definitely.

Suse Anderson:              Awesome. Desi, we are going to wrap up, I think, this part one of this exploration of VR and hand over to different podcast channel and do part two, but for anyone who only tunes into the first episode of this podcast, where can they find you?

Desi Gonzalez:                Maybe the best place to find me is on Twitter. My handle is @desigonz. D-E-S-I-G-O-N-Z. And you can also find me on my website, Gonzalez.Desi.

Suse Anderson:              Awesome. Of course, I will be dropping those links in the show notes as well, as well as our bios for Desi, which will be fully updated since she will have a better sense of what is happening than when we first wrote this, and bios for all of our other guests.

Suse Anderson:              Stick around if you can or tune back in and hear part two of this exploration into VR in museums. This interview that we’ve done with Paisley Smith, which will be much more of a deep dive into a single exhibition, is really worth listening to and I hope we will catch you again, but if not, Ciao.

Desi Gonzalez:                Ciao.


Desi Gonzalez

Desi writes, researches, and makes things at the intersection of art and technology. Her most recent position was leading digital engagement at the Andy Warhol Museum. Before that, she designed educational tech at La Victoria Lab in Peru, developed interpretive experiences at the Museum of Modern Art, and managed a kids website at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Her writing has been featured in publications including Art in America, Art Papers, Indiewire, and The Brooklyn Rail.
Connect w/Desi on Twitter


Michael Haley Goldman

Michael is Director of the Future Projects in the Levine Institute for Holocaust Education at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Future Projects is a small, collaborative team designed to research, prototype, and explore emerging technologies that can transform Holocaust memorialization and education.
Connect w/Michael on Twitter

Kai Frazier

Kai is a historian, and innovative educator passionate about utilizing technology to provide inclusive opportunities and increased exposure in cultural settings for people of color.
Before creating her virtual reality startup, Curated x Kai, she worked with several museums including the U.S Holocaust Memorial Museum & the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture. Kai is now a fellow in Facebook’s 2018 Oculus Launch Pad which provides virtual reality creators from underrepresented backgrounds resources to ensure diversity of thought in the VR ecosystem.
Connect w/Kai on Twitter

Paisley Smith

Paisley is a Canadian filmmaker & virtual reality creator based in Los Angeles and Vancouver. Smith is the creator of Homestay, a personal VR documentary produced by the NFB Interactive Studio with Jam3. Homestay was selected for the IDFA DocLab2017. She is the recipient of the 2018 Sundance Institute and Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Fellowship for her forthcoming work Unceded Territories: VR a collaboration with acclaimed artist and VR pioneer Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, with support from Creative British Columbia. In addition, Paisley is a visiting artist at the University of Southern Interactive Media Division’s Mobile & Environmental Media Lab. Smith holds an MFA from the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. She is an admin of the thriving Women in VR/AR Facebook group, with over 10,000 members of the emerging technology community.
Connect w/Paisley on Twitter

Show Notes

When the Headset Comes Off: VR at Museums in 2017
Into Iñárritu: How CARNE y ARENA sets the bar for how VR should be experienced (and how to push it even further!)
Inside Out
For My Son
Curated x Kai
Prototype # 1 – Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial
From Empathetic Understanding to Engaged Witnessing: Encountering Trauma in the Holocaust Classroom

To learn more about integrating Virtual Reality into museum experiences, register for “Immersion in Museums: AR, VR or Just Plain R?”, an Alliance convening to be held September 6-7, 2018, hosted by the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Presenting Sponsor

Museopunks is presented by the American Alliance of Museums.

Graphic Design of the Museopunks logo is by Selena Robleto.
Twitter: @museopunks

Previous Episodes

Episode 27: #MuseumsAreNotNeutral

With a reticence towards partisan politics, museums are sometimes perceived to be neutral institutions, many avoiding taking a visible stand on issues. But can they really avoid being political when making choices about the allocation of resources, time, and energy? #MuseumsAreNotNeutral is “an initiative that exposes the fallacies of the neutrality claim and calls for an equity-based transformation of museums.” In this episode, LaTanya S. Autry and Mike Murawski break down the #MuseumsAreNotNeutral campaign, while Kaywin Feldman, Nivin and Duncan MacMillan Director and President of the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia), discusses what it’s like to run a museum at a time of crisis.

Suze:          Good day. And welcome to Museopunks, the podcast for the progressive museum. My name is Suze Anderson and I will be your host today as we explore the progressive bounds of museum practice.

Suze:          A couple of weeks ago I passed my Americaversary and celebrated four years living here in Baltimore and in the US. When I moved here, I don’t think I could have imagined or predicted the direction that the following years would take, whether personally, professionally or politically. But those three parts of life are so intertwined. And increasingly it seems that not only is the personal political, but the professional is too.

Suze:          As an academic I’m often finding myself thinking about how to ensure that my teaching is not partisan whilst acknowledging the beliefs and values that so inform my approaches whether to teaching research or life. And this question of how to acknowledge the politics in everything we do. Particularly at a time when capital P politics are so present in daily life. It’s one that museums are obviously facing as well.

Suze:          Several times in recent episodes, my guests or I have mentioned the idea that museums are not neutral. That they’re always making choices about where to spend their time, their money and their influence. It’s an idea that’s sitting at the center of a vibrant discussion online and at conferences and in institutions around the world. Thanks in large part to my first two guests LaTanya Autry and Mike Murawski who started the museums are not neutral campaign late last year.

Suze:          Today, we’re going to dive into this topic with them and with Kaywin Feldman, the Nivin and Dunkin MacMillan director and President of the Minneapolis Institute of Art or (Mia) to find out more about why challenging the notion of museum neutrality is so critical today.

Suze:          As a cultural organizer in the visual arts, Latonya S. Autry centers social justice and public memory in her work. In addition to creating the art of black descent an interactive program that promotes public dialogue about the African American liberation struggle, she co-produced museums are not neutral and the social justice and museums resource list, a crowd sourced bibliography. Latonya has curated exhibitions and organized programs at Yale University Art Gallery, Art Space New Haven, Mississippi Museum of Art, Tougaloo College and the Crane Art Center. Through her graduate studies at the University of Delaware where she is completing her PhD in art history, Latonya has developed expertise in an art of the United States photography and museums. Her dissertation, Crossroads of Commemoration: Lynching Landscapes in America, concentrates on the interplay of race, representation, memory and public space.

Suze:          Mike Murawski is a museum educator, cultural activist, nature lover and the current director of education and public programs for the Portland Art Museum. Mike is founding editor of art museum teaching dot com. A collaborative online forum that launched in 2011. Mike earned his MA and PhD in education from American University in Washington D.C., focusing his research on educational theory and arts learning. He previously held positions as director school services at the St. Louis Art Museum and head of education and public programs at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University in St. Louis.

Suze:          LaTanya, Mike welcome to Museopunks.

LaTanya:  Thank you so much.

Mike:          Thanks Suze, great to be here.

Suze:          It is so great to have you both here. And at such an interesting time I think in museums and in museums are not neutral which you have described as being an initiative that exposes the fallacies of the neutrality claim and calls for an equity based transformation of museums.

Suze:          LaTanya, I might start with you. Can you start by telling us a little bit more about the initiative. where it comes from and what its broad aims are?

LaTanya:  Yes. So this started last August. And in many ways it started a long time before that, but this particular campaign started from last August. And it was Mike online on Twitter and I follow him. I follow a lot of people who are leaders in museums on Twitter. And I noticed that he was writing, I don’t even remember what the whole origin of the conversation was, but at some point he had tweeted the statement museums are not neutral. And basically speaking to the frustration he had noticed in museums and Mike can tell you more about that. But it’s something that really resonated when I saw it and I wrote back something like, that should be on a t-shirt. And he wrote me later and said, let’s do it. Let’s make a shirt that says that. And you know we thought we would sell these and have the proceeds all going to charity. So it wasn’t really about us making money off of the shirts. It was about raising awareness and using the money to support social justice organizations.

LaTanya:  And it made so much sense to me because I had been hearing it for years working at institutions hearing people say: “oh, the museum can’t be political.” The museum has to be this neutral space. And all along I’ve been just fighting that and finding it to be really a ridiculous statement when of course, museums just aren’t neutral in the first place. Just the construct itself is not neutral. And it’s something that’s really bothered me. And so I pretty much felt that I’m just fed up to here. I cannot take that anymore. Anybody pushing that kind of statement on me. And so I thought the idea of a shirt was excellent.

Suze:          Yeah. It’s interesting the … as a campaign though it’s become so much more than that t-shirt.

LaTonya:  Right.

Suze:          It may have started as a tweet and a shirt but it’s really continued into something so much bigger than that. But as you say, LaTanya, this idea that museums aren’t neutral. It’s something I certainly encountered when I was first coming to the idea of the museum as an institution back in art school and that was 15 years ago. We’ve known for a long time I think–certainly in academic circles–that institutions, that museums are not neutral. So why has this idea of museum neutrality continued to resonate in some parts of the sector? Why is a campaign like this necessary now? Mike, maybe do you want to kick us off with this response?

Mike:          Sure. Yeah. I’ve just been so grateful to be able to work on all this with La Tonya. And there’s so many colleagues and people out there in the museum field that are pushing this message. And understanding I think the … so it’s not even a fact that someone has said recently, well maybe some museums are neutral and some aren’t. And it’s just no, there’s not even two sides of the debate. Every single institution is based on legacies of colonialism and white supremacy and all kind of structures that are in place. And they haven’t been able to escape those structures.

Mike:          And so I think one of the powerful things about this campaign and seeing you know, now more than a thousand people all over the world seeing these t-shirts and wearing them at conferences, at policy meetings, at government meetings and really striking up. I just saw a photograph from the Columbus Museum of Art, they were wearing them at their city’s pride parade for their museums participation in that. And it’s just pushing forward this message that not only are museums not neutral but they are part of being changing agents in society. They are forces of change. They’re part of this conversation. They’re part of the social and political issues within our communities. And they are not some sort of distanced separate box that includes objects or tells stories of other people.

Mike:          So I think it’s been really important to not just see the museums are not neutral message, but to understand that with that comes implications of action. You know, that museums should be taking social action, getting involved in social justice causes that benefit local communities and benefit communities abroad. So that’s been a big … that’s one of the reasons I think early on that was probably related to the Twitter exchange that we were having when we came up with this idea to sort of do t-shirts. Because I think LaTanya, myself and thousands, probably ten thousands of people out there have just had enough of museums always doing this neutrality defense. Well, that’s too political or that’s too … you know, we’re not going to get engaged in that. That’s just too partisan. And we keep hearing it.

Mike:          We keep getting the push back and I’m just blown away by how many, even well respected people in the field will sort of understand the basic element of what not being neutral means. But then when it comes to take it a step further, they’re like, “ oh, no. we can’t do that.” We’ve got to cover all perspectives, all sides to every issue equally.

Mike:          I think there’s a real conversation to be had here. So I’m glad that people are really having it.

Suze:          Well, yeah. Let’s talk a little bit more about this idea then of neutrality. Because as you say, one of the things you’re talking about is not just an acknowledgment that museums make choices and that these choices are necessarily political because it’s about who gets space examine who gets time and visibility and resources, or what topics or what objects. But you’re also taking this further and you’re talking about this idea of museum acts as an agent of positive change.

Suze:          So advocacy and acknowledgment of a lack of neutrality necessarily entwined or are they two separate issues that we’re bringing together in this campaign in part just because this is where your interest is and your focus is?

LaTanya:  I’d like to say something about that. I think they are entwined because once you acknowledge the actual truth and you stop hiding behind some kind of lies, it does make people go, so okay what are you going to do about it. And I think a lot of people who don’t even go to museums regularly and partly because they just feel that the museum is this construct. It’s this construct of colonialism that has not been acknowledging that history. Right? Has not acknowledged their complicity in it. And a lot of people just choose to not go there. And when I talk to them I usually tell people and they say, well I think that the museums, especially art museums, people will say I think they’re elitist spaces, I think they’re racist spaces.

LaTanya:  And I tell them yeah, generally they’re right. That is what these spaces are about. So if you start to acknowledge the actual truth, right, I think that does put some pressure on. So what is one going to do about it?

LaTanya:  And for me, I think a lot of that is not so much only just about outward programs, but actually the museum kind of critiquing itself and looking at their own internal processes. Right? Their practices that they’ve been doing and start to actually address those practices.

LaTanya:  There’s also, it’s not just what gets put on display, but who is making those choices. And so in the US when we look at who is running the institutions it is very much, these spaces are very much run on the ideology of white supremacy. Also, who is making the decisions in the institutions as well. So I think definitely the two, the actions are entwined with acknowledging the actual truth.

Suze:          Mike, what about you? Do you see this as being an unnecessary entwinement or are there continuities or different things?

Mike:          I would agree I think there’s completely inseparable. I love the t-shirt. I’m glad, but it’s only the first step. And I think I want people to sort of be making other t-shirts that say museums are and then put a verb in there. Because I think it’s about what we do. I don’t think you can just be not neutral. And so I think they’re totally connected. I mean, look, when it comes down to it, those of us that work in museums … because you know one of the things that I sort of stand by and I think that’s consistent across a lot of people working in the social action side of museums, museums are human based institutions. They’re made of people. So there’s no it. So many people that work for museums are like, oh the museum just won’t change. Or it changes too slow or there’s nothing we can do. And I think that … museums can change as quickly as the people that work for them can change.

Mike:          So if we can get museum leadership to be thinking about these issues, we can actually make change overnight. Because when it comes down to it, in the work that we’re doing, we’re either upholding or we’re disrupting the status quo. We’re either advancing or we’re dismantling oppression. There’s really no middle ground there. And so I think we’ve got to start understanding our role in taking apart these systems. It’s actually something LaTanya … when we were having a conversation recently. It’s like, inclusion is kind offer okay and that’s a big thing these days, but LaTanya was saying she’s for transformation. And I love that. Because that’s really what the work is about. It’s about systemic change. And probably making change that the big change we might not even see come out in our lifetime because it’s really big future oriented systemic change. We’ve got to start cracking away at this stuff.

Suze:          Yeah. It’s interesting is you talk about how quickly things can change. I think one of the things that stymies change or makes it a lot harder is not actually the people who are involved. I think it’s things like standards and protocols. You know, it’s so hard to change something like the basic collection system that you’ve set up or those sorts of things in terms of the legacy information that you’ve got there and the legacy collection. I think that’s where some of those questions around neutrality and the choices and how do we start to then tackle them also become part of these discussions because it is about staffing, it’s about outward facing things. But then it’s also about these very deep embedded standards and protocols that have set the normalized course of business for museums. That feels like a really challenging thing to tackle.

LaTanya:  No is what I would say to that. I think it’s an interesting thing because I found that working in museums, I’ve always been a person that cares about social justice and wants to apply that lens to all of my work. And I found that there were moments when I realized I was part of advancing these systems of inequity. Right? Because they’re built into museums, they’re just built into the structure. So to work there in many ways one is actually automatically just doing it. And it’s easy to do because that is how the structure is set.

Suze:           Right.

LaTanya:  So I’ve been really thinking, having to be more conscious. And I tell people it is our duty to break those structures. Right. So people will say it’s too late to do x. It’s too late to add more artists of color to the show because it’s already been set and it’s too complicated or they’re not in the collection, we don’t collect that. So we’re just going to go with what we have. And what we have is something that’s already been built on these structures of inequality. And so we perpetuate it because yeah we don’t have enough time. There aren’t enough staff. There’s not enough resources. And many of these things are actually, they are true. When you work there … when you hear it from the outside you just go, oh people are giving you an excuse. But when you work on the inside you do realize okay yeah there are a lot of pressures that we have.

LaTanya:  And yet, I’d like to sit back and tell people, and I tell myself, but it is my duty to break these things. It’s my duty to change the system. Because the system is set up to perpetuate itself. And so my job is to break those structures. And if that means we’re going to do things differently. So it’s where I try to see alternative solutions and I try to come up with other ideas and I bring them to a lot of people. And it’s all about how we can free ourselves out of this chain that’s already been set up for us. So I think policies and these practices, these are also things that are shaped by humans, they’re shaped by people. The problem is that it becomes easy to do and because of lack of resources and stuff we kind of keep doing them often even if they are wrong.

LaTanya:  But if we see it as our mission to change those things. And really see our work in the institution as being creative and we are creative agents I think we can really make that change happen. We can make it happen in lots of little ways. And we can encourage and we can invite other people to help us to do that work too. Sometimes people who already work in these systems of inequality are some of the worst people for trying to get them to change because they’re so use to it. So it’s good to kind of collaborate with people outside of our museum structure to help us develop ideas and ways that we can start dismantling these kinds of systems that we have built up already.

Suze:          Yeah. I think it’s not just the people that are use to it, but they’re invested in the current systems as well. That’s what their training has taken them to or those sorts of things.

Suze:          I think one of the things you brought up earlier, Mike, was this idea that there are people who argue for museums remaining outwardly apolitical. But I suspect there are also people who would argue that museums not taking explicit positions is a way for them to act as agents of positive change which is one of the aim office this campaign for fear of exacerbating the polarization that we’re currently seeing in political discourse, c:ertainly here in the US and I gather in many places around the world.

Suze:          Does openly taking a stand on political or social issues have … is it possible that that threatens to undermine the public trust that we have in museums? Is there a way that actually this outward stance, this outward acknowledgment of a lack of neutrality could undermine other aspects of the work that museums are doing?

Mike:          So I this it’s … yeah. That’s a great question. There’s actually been some research done recently that I thought was interesting around these ideas. Because there are all these fears out there of any sort of museum board could list all the reasons why they feel uncomfortable engaging in projects that might align with some of this work. So I think addressing those fears is really important. One of them is that public trust would go away. And I think one of the main things to question ourselves when we ask about public trust is what do we mean by public. Because I know that if we asked indigenous communities or communities color out there and said do you trust museums. I don’t think we’re getting the 90% trust that we get from the sort of older research that’s been done on does the public trust museums.

Suze:          Right.

Mike:          So I don’t think that trust is necessarily across the board. And so you could do an exhibition that is really totally disregards communities of color and those experiences, voices and perspectives in our country. And I think generally, like in a city like Portland, Oregon where I work, generally broader public they may trust the museum through it. But is that the right thing that museum should be doing?

Mike:          And there’s also been research that shows … so I think we have to question what the public is when we talk about public trust. And I don’t think there’s been enough research on that. Although, there have been a couple of really good articles written in recent journals that point towards that. But there’s been some new research out on public trust and museums that are taking social justice approaches and that trust is still strong.

Mike:          There’s been in museums like the Missouri History Museum, the Eastern State Penitentiary, institutions that are really taking a stance on really important issues in their communities and in society are maintaining that really strong trust with your visitors and with their communities, and they’re growing those communities. More and more people that normally weren’t visiting an institution because it was telling a certain version of history are now coming back because that’s been smashed. And now we’re telling stories that have never been told in an official institution.

Mike:          There’s a recent exhibit on civil rights in St. Louis at the Missouri History Museum that some research was done on that just showed that visitors were really engaging in the content, especially stuff related to Ferguson and things that revolved around that. So I think it’s been good to see museums taking a stance for issues. I think where I get frustrated is when an issue that is basically around recognizing basic human dignity for all people becomes politicized and becomes partisan. So as to say that if we’re going to have an exhibit that stands up and centers the voices of disabled communities, if we’re going to have an exhibition that centers the voices of social justice activism or black lives matter activists then that’s political. And I think these are people that are working out there in human rights. And they are people that are striving for their voice to be heard and for their stories to be told as part of these museum narratives.

Mike:          And I think it’s a really important part of the work that museums have to do. And I don’t see it as … I see it political because everything is political I think. But I don’t see it as some divisive partisan position that museums are taking when they’re doing this work. Very much not that. So to just sort of address that.

Suze:          Yeah. My husband and I were talking recently about museum neutrality and he mentioned the idea of soft advocacy. Whereas you might be taking a position and doing so consistently but doing so quietly, finding ways to help make progress, ways to actually work through an idea or basically help with human rights or civic rights in the fighting for these things. But doing so in a way that is not necessarily loud and in your face and that can be just as important, doing quiet work behind the scenes. Is it enough for museums internally to be acknowledging that their work is not neutral and considering the positions that they’re taking, the positions that they are putting out into the space without being explicit about those stances? Or do they have to be actually explicit and transparent about these choices that they’re making?

LaTanya:  I guess it could go both ways. I think museums need to … the people who work in museums need to let go of the idea of it being problematic. So personally I don’t really see a reason to distinguish so much between the soft and hard. Because actually I find it to be problematic to have the thought about being quote “in your face” about advocacy or something like that. Like me standing up for human rights or disability and black lives matter is to me not being in your face about anything. I just think it’s kind of not the right way to frame the issue in the first place.

LaTanya:  I think a lot of the work that museums need to do is internal work. I actually find it very problematic when things are happening in our society and then people think that there should be a quick program that they should throw together. Or if they throw this exhibition together put these certain objects up on the wall, then we’re done. The museum has “said something,” has spoken about this issue. When the actuality of how the structure of that museum is has not actually been addressed. The fact that people of color occupy the lowest level jobs in the institution, so they are mainly the facilities people, and they are mainly the guards. But they’re not actually making any decisions about what goes on the wall or what we collect and things like that.

LaTanya:  So we’re leaving all of that intact and instead we’ve just put together a show. And the museum pats itself on the back and says, hey, we did something. We’re done. So to me it’s not a conversation so much about being in your face or soft advocacy. I think it’s all about museums getting real and doing some really hard work. And like I said I don’t actually think they’re the best people to really necessarily organize that work for themselves that they should be working with. There are people who are trained facilitators on issues of race and issues of disabilities. They should be hiring those folks to work with them in their institution and help them design. To just be able to uproot, to see were the problems are because they probably don’t even know where they are for real. To be able to identify them and then start it break them down.

LaTanya:  I think that should be an ongoing thing. It’s not going to be something you can fix in a one day workshop or a two day or one month. I mean it should just be ongoing work of the institution. Because that’s why there are these calls that people have talked about, like decolonize. To decolonize the museum, what that work would involve. That is really deep structural kinds of work.

LaTanya:  So I think we get out of the ideas so much that’s being a protest in terms of it being this temporary thing, and it’s just something about people walking around with signs and flashing them. And it’s not really about that. It’s actually about a mind shift. It’s about changing the paradigm in which we work.

LaTanya:  That’s why I kind of push against those kind of terms like soft advocacy or something because I just think if we change how we are framing the whole entire situation we could start to get somewhere. Versus this attitude of … this whole discussion about things being comfortable to people and things like that. It doesn’t even matter. This whole talk about we want to make people comfortable. I don’t care about making people comfortable. That’s not really the point. You’re actually caring about being an institution that supports human rights. You’re not out here trying to make people who are vested in oppression comfortable. It just doesn’t make any sense to me.

Suze:          I think that’s exactly right. When we talk about this though. There’s also going to be a big question that comes up. Before, Mike mentioned boards. We need to talk money if we’re having this conversation. Because whether it’s relying on public funding or private philanthropy, museums are often deeply invested in particular ideas about the objects in the collection, about the collections themselves. And sometimes there is a fear that exploring the nuance or the complexities related to an object or its histories could affect its value whether that’s its trust value or its financial value.

Suze:          And similarly museum exhibitions are often sponsored by corporations who have interests that might go against the museum mission and might very much go against these socially focused actions, this idea of the museum acting as an agent of the social change.

Suze:          How should museum professionals who want to support this campaign address those kinds of fears?  Mike, do you want to talk to that?

Mike:          Yeah. It’s another one of those, so a lot of these fears to me at least are just stuck in these false narratives that museum professionals keep telling themselves reasons why we can’t do the work. All the time within institutions, within communities, within the field there’s a lot of people that put up these barrier to doing the work. And I think when we actually probe at them and talk about them in serious ways we found out there’s not a lot behind them in supporting them. There are plenty of institutions out there doing this work that have full board support. In fact sometimes they’ve changed their boards which is desperately needed in so many institutions across this country.

Mike:          And so there’s been a lot of structural changes needed along that area. I think some institutions have looked at where their support is coming from and developed better guidelines for making decisions about fund raising and patrons and corporate sponsors for things. And those are the museums that I think need to be leading us into the future. I think there are other museums that haven’t been asking those hard questions.

Mike:          If a science museum is receiving support from oil companies and then we find some of those same institutions are afraid to do exhibitions on climate change which is probably one of the single greatest issues of our generation. But science museums haven’t jumped on to really tackle that issue. Some have, but some haven’t and they’ve been fearful of it because they’re fearful of losing funding. But we need to take a stand on this and actually address these issues.

Mike:          And so I think more… there’s been some exchange that even LaTanya, you’ve been responding to really well recently around does this whole conversation apply to science museums? Yes. Definitely does. It applies to all these institutions. And you can’t get an easy way out of this by saying, “well we can’t get funding for that.” Because you need to do the work, you need to live that vision and stand up for that work and you will find people to support that work. There are plenty of people right now that don’t support art museums for example, because they see them as elitist museums only serving certain segments of society. And so they don’t want to support those institutions. But if we can turn that around and some museums have. We see a total different landscape for fund raising.

Mike:          There are major foundations in this country right now across … you can pretty much name every major foundation, they are doing really significant investments in community development work, in supporting communities of color, in making changes to be more inclusive. I mean the Ford Foundation is one of the leading institutions that’s supporting exhibitions that are focusing on disability communities. They are focusing on all kinds of institutions supporting good work in communities. So I don’t see any indication of the funding that should be deriving institutions towards this direction of not engaging with this work. I think they should-

Suze:          Yep.

Mike:          … just be secure and confident. I think that’s where the soft advocacy for me gets problematic is that it indicates that museums should sort of dabble in this work a little bit. Or just sort of be secretive about it or do it in a small gallery in the basement. And that’s when I think museums get into trouble is they’re not committing to it. It’s not a core value. They’re sort of like, well, we’ll try this or something happened we better responds to that.

Mike:          And museums usually are really bad at responding. If they’re not doing the work and then they respond to something at the very last minute because it’s in the news or because they’ve been called out by local activists, they’re not really committed to it. So you see them be severely challenged by this. So, yeah, I think the funding conversation is not a barrier to this work.

Suze:          Thanks, Mike. Recently on Twitter, or there was an article doing the rounds online that argued to fighting racism within museums they need to stop acting like they’re neutral. I know you’re both acquainted with this piece, but it didn’t acknowledge this campaign. So there was a lot of conversation on Twitter that followed when people were sharing this online and I was one of those who shared it online, that described the frequent erasure of the work of people of color and other excluded groups. And I wondered if you could speak a little bit more about how your own work has been rendered invisible and how that’s impacted you as scholars and professionals.

Suze:          LaTanya, I know this is something we actually spoke a little bit about on Twitter. And I know you were being brought into these conversations. Can you talk a little bit more about the erasure of the work of people of color?

LaTanya:  Sure. Yeah. It’s something that is nothing new. It happened with our campaign but it has happened over and over. And it’s something where I saw it with the article and I thought okay, I’m actually going to speak up a little bit because I’ve noticed that just since we’ve started this, it’s been less than a year, the campaign has been improperly cited over and over. And when it’s usually not mentioned at all or if it’s mentioned they only mention one of us. And sometimes I think that’s because people just aren’t maybe use to collaborative projects for some reason we like to think of as one person creates everything.

LaTanya:  But also, sometimes people just know one or the other. They know Mike so they credit Mike. Or they know me so they credit me. Is to sometimes it’s just that, but also there is just a trend in general to erase women of color and to just try to shut down your voice too. So it’s something I’ve been noticing. So I’ve been on Twitter and I’m very vocal about my experiences and I really ground things on my experiences or ones I’ve witnessed of colleagues. When I talk about experiences of discrimination I’ve had in museums and in the academy and sometimes I’ve had people push back really in a forceful way to tell me no, that’s not what you’re experiencing. Of course, it’s like a ludicrous position for someone to take to tell me that’s not what you experienced. These places are places of inclusion. And they throw a lot of these kinds of words at me. And I’m going, yeah, I know institutions use those words, but I’ve worked in several museums so thanks for that.

LaTanya:  And also at the same time, I’ve experienced discrimination in multiple forms in museums. I’ve experienced sexism, I’ve experienced classism, I’ve experienced ableism, ageism in addition to racism. So I pretty much have very fluid knowledge of how those things operate within the museum structure. And what I do know is that many, and I’m not the only person, of course. Many people have these experiences. Not many people really will talk about them in a public platform and write about them in a public space, in a public platform such as Twitter, social media kind of thing. And that’s because people, you know, they’re fearful. They feel that for future employment they’re trying to protect themselves. And I understand that. And I actually started to realize for myself in the last two or three years that we’re really not going to be changing these systems until we get more people to come out and talk about their experiences and to publish those experiences.

LaTanya:  And when we do publish them, I’m hoping that when people reference those things and see that that they will actually cite who they got this information from. And for me it is all about actually doing that work of dismantling those systems. Because for me it’s made me analyze, like to experience what I’ve gone through in institutions. I’ve been thinking I’ve been using all this material to analyze it to see how it works, how it affects someone and then how can we start dismantling it. And I think that work has to happen collectively. And that’s why I actually write about it and talk about it in public space.

LaTanya:  So it’s, that push back that I’ve encountered or people trying to erase my experiences while I’m actually doing that work, I guess is to be expected. Because that’s part of just the whole system. So erasure is part of it, right. So when you do have people of color, women and disabled folks who are in these spaces, the few of you that make it into these institutions, there’s a whole system that’s set up to try to erase you the whole time while you’re in it as well, to render you invisible.

LaTanya:  So for me it’s really important to see how that works. To talk about it, to call people out on that erasure and to make it known and to just kind of … I’m also doing this work because I try to connect with museum studies instructors and students to kind of … I think that’s where we need to go because some of these people who already been in the system for so long, I don’t think they’re really going to be changing too much. I put some hope into them but not too much. I really see the energy going towards people who are going into the field and working with them and helping them. Because also you want to encourage a wider group of people to be professionals in the field. So part of that is to give them some of the tools for them to see what that experience is going to be like and to try to help them along so they cannot have to deal with as much really bad stuff as I’ve had to deal with. And to make their experience better.

LaTanya:  And also working with more people also who don’t work in the museum, to kind of connect with them. And to encourage them to see these spaces as theirs too. And that they can be shaping these institutions.

LaTanya:  So yeah, I use that erasure as something to study and to try to figure out how to change that in a way to connect with more people. So it’s something to be expected unfortunately.

Suze:          Yeah. Earlier at the start of this conversation one of the comments was, I think Mike you made the comment that museums are not neutral should be more than, well, is more than just a t-shirt. But that you would like to see other t-shirts that museums are blank. This is question for both of you. If all museum professionals agreed that museum were not neutral what do you think would change? And if we take this movement to its natural progression to it’s next step and the one after that and the one after that, what would you like to see the sector look like as a result of this campaign?

Mike:          Well I think a lot of things can come from that. I think this work is, you know, I think one of the things to recognize, for me at least, this is from my own personal perspective that I recognize about this work is I think it’s just ongoing. And I have to say that in our own institutions in small hallway conversations we do reflect back on something that Helen Molesworth wrote at one point that was spread around a lot when she was canned from her institution. Where she sort of questioned whether the functions of museums was unredeemable and especially in working with indigenous communities. I’ve worked with a lot of native artists who would say. You know, one of them said, well we were around for thousands of years before museums, we’ll be around for thousands of years after museums are long gone.

Mike:          So there is that question of are we sort of fixing museums to get them to a certain phase or is there actually a better thing that could exist? I think whether it’s museums or whether it’s not I think that I think spaces that really embrace and advance the role … So I’ve worked in art museums my entire career so I’ve been really interested in how can we create spaces where we’re enhancing the role of arts and culture and creating social change and being community owned spaces so that there isn’t just a small group of staff that are, not necessarily as much connected to the community of a place, but are sort of the experts and they’re sort of dictating the knowledge, the stories the objects that should be important to a community but in really flipping that.

Mike:          And several institutions have done that where they’ve put community at the core at the center and it requires museums thinking a lot about how do we define community? How do we value those voices, perspectives, knowledges and experiences? I think there’s been some really interesting work out there that are getting museums closer to that. But I think you know, just recognizing indigenous land as a permanent practice and institutions would be a great thing to see. Actually being civically engaged.

Mike:          Museums should be places like libraries where you can go and get registered to vote. Every museum you should be able to go and get registered to vote. That is not partisan. That is just part of our democracy. We should be places that support our democracy. We should promote people’s participation in human rights organizations, community based organizations and social justice organizations. And we should be proud of that. Because all of those groups better our communities. And I think we are still behind in term of organizations doing that.

Mike:          And then I think because of especially, I’ve been talking with a lot of colleagues around the globe that aren’t based in the US. And they’re so interested with how institutions here are responding to these legacies of colonialism, these legacies of slavery. That are very much with us. So I think if we acknowledge those and start to work and get to dismantle those legacies and we center voices, perspectives, experiences that haven’t been centered and don’t always center white artists or those stories. I think there could be a radical shift there for museums to start thinking that way. It doesn’t always have to be balanced fair and equal. We can actually swing the pendulum a little bit in the right direction. And I don’t think anyone will get hurt by it.

Mike:          So I think just build ago lot of that change. But again, I think the real question to ask is…is it museums that we see ourselves a hundred years from now in the future all gathering around. Or do we actually recreate these institutions in a little different?

Suze:          Yeah. That’s a really good question. LaTanya, what about you? Where do you see this in its ultimate actualization?

LaTanya:  Yeah. I loved a lot of basically everything that Mike said. You know, I always use the analogy of museums should be like these porous spaces. They should be like Swiss cheese. So there should be these holes in them that there’s always these arms going in and out. We have to get out of the idea of inside the museum and outside the museum, this in/out paradigm. I think that’s really problematic.

LaTanya:  And really in the big picture of things, I’m really wanting to spend more time thinking more deeply about creating other types of centers. Again, harkening back to what Mike was saying about that article, that last part of the article where Molesworth has said that she’s not sure if the museum itself, that construct, is really redeemable. It is one that is heavily loaded and very problematic because it does come out of a legacy of colonialism. Right.

LaTanya:  I’m not sure either. I do believe in art. I believe in culture. I believe in public memory. And I’m interested in creating centers that give those kinds of things, practices, room for a forum like spaces. I’m not sure they need to be call a museum and to be entrenched in a lot of the historical baggage that comes along with a museum.

LaTanya:  So I’m interested in thinking with people who want to do that work. And thinking of other types of institutions as well. And at the same time, I’m extremely excited about the arts. And I believe in them wholeheartedly. The structures of museums, I’m not sure if they’re redeemable either. I think the process of work we need to do of really decolonizing those institutions we won’t know if the museum is redeemable. We have to actually go through those steps to try to figure out what that would involve and to actually do it. And then we could see. We can see where it can go.

LaTanya:  I do think that there are some really wonderful minds out there and if we connected and really work collaboratively with a lot of people. Getting outside of the whole, you’ve got to have a PhD to work here kind of thing. If we really connected with people in deep broad kind of ways, I think we could make something really exciting. And so I believe very deeply in culture. And I’m interested in more collaborations.

Suze:          Yeah. Mike, LaTanya, this has been so interesting and so informative. And I’m so impressed with the work you’re doing and the conversations that you have started and that I’m sure are going to continue to shape our sector for many years to come.

Suze:          If people want to get in contact with you, if they want to find out about the campaign, if they want to purchase one of the museums are not neutral shirts which I know profits go to support groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the World Central Kitchen in Puerto Rico, where can they do it? How can they find you? How can they get in contact and follow along and connect with this conversation?

Mike:          I think one of the easiest ways is to follow the hashtag, museums are not neutral. It’s been a really great conversation and dialogue and people are posting to it everyday, all the time. And I think we are constantly posting links to the T-shirts. I think  LaTanya in her Twitter feed has them. I’ve got one pinned on my Twitter feed. So just check us out. It’s through bonfire. So if you Google museums are not neutral bonfire, it’s a great site that allows us to do this. And then the funds go to charity. We’ve raised something like almost $11,000 for charity organizations.

Suze:          Amazing.

Mike:          And the t-shirt funds right now go to support the Flint Child and Health and Development Fund which is helping with the long term effects that will come out of the Flint water crisis. Which isn’t over just because there’s pipes that are being replaced and things like that. So we really appreciate everyone that’s continuing to chime in and sort of support those organizations with this.

Mike:          Yeah. And I would say get involved in the actually hashtag. Start tweeting and on Instagram and start sharing your perspectives on these issues.

LaTanya:  Yep.

Suze:          That is fantastic. Mike, LaTanya, thank you so much.

Suze:          I will put links to the museums are not neutral link in the show notes as well. And we’ll put each of your Twitter handles there so that people can find you.

LaTanya:  Wonderful.

Suze:          In the meantime, thank you so much. It’s been amazing to talk to you.

LaTanya:  Thank you, this has been great. Thank you so much.

Mike:          Yeah. That’s Suze. It’s been great.

Suze:          Kaywin Feldman is the Nivin and Duncan MacMillan director and president of the Minneapolis institute of art or Mia Since 2008. She also serves on the boards of National Art Strategies, the Chip Stone Foundation and is a member of the BISO group.

Suze:          She is past President of the Association of Art Museum dDrectors and a past chair of the American Alliance of Museums or AAM. You can find Kaywin on Twitter at Kaywin Feldman and I will include a link to that in the show notes.

Suze:          Kaywin, thank you so much for joining us here on Museopunks.

Kaywin:     It’s my pleasure. Thank you for the invitation.

Suze:          It’s so wonderful to speak to you.

Suze:          Now you recently wrote a really influential piece for Apollo magazine titled Museum Leadership in a Time of Crisis in which you argue that this is the most challenging time to be an arts leader that you’ve experience the in 25 years as a museum director. Why is this moment so different or so much more critical than previous moments?

Kaywin:     You know, I think from having been a director for so long I usually have a wealth of experience to draw from when there’s a crisis or staff members have  a need or I need to respond to something. And I’ve just never been through a time like this. And I’ve had several moments where our staff has gathered together to talk about how upset they are over something that’s happened locally or nationally. And I have to actually look at them and say I don’t have an answer to this. You know that I’m just as vulnerable in sort of going through this.

Kaywin:     And of course I have to as always as a leader put aside my own personal partisan politics because that’s not what this is about. But as I kind of reference in the article where I do draw the line is that I feel frequently that the key values that we all stand for in our institution, I think most museums are really under attack. And I do feel that it is not just appropriate but necessary for us to stand up for what we believe in.

Suze:          Yeah. I think one of the things that I was quite interested in in the article is you talk about the fact that museums are political by their nature but also argue that they shouldn’t be partisan. And I often see that there is this … those two ideas are often linked especially when we talk about these ideas of museum neutrality. There’s often this sort of confusion between saying museums are political versus museums should be partisan. How does a museum take a principled stance or take a position without being partisan? What are those central values that you’re talking to?

Kaywin:     Yeah. So I always try to sort of talk to our staff about a concept that this really influential woman in our community named Shonda Baker taught me was that we can be activists in our private lives. And in our museum work life or work life anywhere we should be change makers. And so we try to think about what does it mean to be a change maker? And that very much comes out of our mission and our collection. And I’ve said to our team that the good news is all art is an expression of the human lived experience. And so that includes identity, sexuality, politics, religion, love, death, hate, hope, you know all of those things are part of the expression of artists and so we have a really rich base here in our collection. We have 5,000 years of human history from across the globe in our collection. And so it offers a really rich spectrum of works to draw from. And to be able to communicate some of those values and to tackle difficult issues.

Suze:          Yeah. It’s interesting as you say that. And I think one of the things that we are then talking about is how we use and utilize our collections but also use our spaces.

Kaywin:     Yep.

Suze:          And use the energy that we have. So in terms of that, I notice you often talk about at Mia about the museum serving community needs. And I think that’s a really important thing to break down a little bit. I’m interested in how you define community and if your definition of community has changed since you came to Mia. And also how you think about defining those needs and how art can best serve those needs.

Kaywin:     You asked me lots of big questions.

Suze:          Sorry. Yes. That tends to be what I do here.

Kaywin:     So of course the community term is a tough one. And it’s a fraught one. And I know that it’s often used as sort of code for something else. And so we do use the term a lot and it changes according to whatever kind of group we’re talking about. And so in its broadest sense I do think about our constituents. And so here in the Twin Cities, to our get disappointment, where what’s known as fly over territory that we’re between the coasts and so we actually don’t get a lot of tourists here at our museum. And so the bulk of our annual attendance comes from people from the Twin Cities.

Kaywin:     And so in its broadest sense for us community is very much the people who live in the Twin Cities. And we often talk about serving those needs. Our current strategic plan actually has three primary areas of focus, and one of them is actually focusing on our neighborhood. And we came to that because one of the great assets of our museum is that we’re not actually located in the center of an urban downtown. We’re just outside of downtown. And we’re completely tucked away in a neighborhood. And it’s a very, very diverse dynamic neighborhood. And when I first got here I thought that it was a liability because we weren’t on a Main Street with people driving past everyday where we could put banners out about our current exhibitions. We’re very tucked away.

Suze:          Yeah.

Kaywin:     And of course, I came to realize that it’s in the liability. It’s an incredible asset because we have people living all around us. And of course when you take away the challenges and hassles of transportation it means that we can actually welcome our neighbors into the museum. And we hadn’t been doing that very much because we have free admission here at MIA. And so we’d always sort of thought everyone’s welcome so let them come.

Kaywin:     And our strategic plan has a big focus on actually what are we doing for the people who live around us? And how might we partner with other agencies in our neighborhood that are also serving our neighbors really well and make our resources for both of us go farther in reaching more people more profoundly by working together.

Kaywin:     So it’s a long answer to your question, but trying to make that point that we do use community a lot.

Suze:          Yeah.

Kaywin:     As a big word. But we do then often break it down as to what we mean specifically. But I think one of the other sort of last key things I would stress is that we don’t every assume to know what a community wants our needs. You know, we very much feel that it’s our job to get out there and listen to people and hear from our community and that that’s the important part of the process.

Suze:          Yeah. I’d say you’ve even been doing that within the museum sector as well. One of the things that I really wanted to speak to you about today is the museum a site for social action or Mass Action gatherings that you’ve been hosting with stakeholders from within the sector which are a series of public dialogues essentially about how we can create actionable practices for greater equity and inclusion within the sector.

Suze:          Where did this initiative come from? And it sounds like it continues this continuity or the continuum of listening to your communities and one of which being the professional community? Is that right?

Kaywin:     Absolutely. And really it all came about from some of the really terrific leaders I have here on our team, particularly Elizabeth Callahan who I’m really delighted to say I’ve worked with in a couple of museums now. And she’s amazing. And it was really Elizabeth’s vision to do this, to start Mass Action. And also very much Elizabeth’s point of view that it needed to be sector wide and not a Mia initiative. You know we raised the money and got the program together but it really does belong to a large group of museum practitioners who do work that inspire us all. And so we merely wanted to have the opportunity to bring them together.

Kaywin:     And I have to say for me personally, so it really is the baby of Elizabeth and a few other staff members here. But my realization of the importance of Mass Action came after Philando Castile was fatally shot here in Falcon Heights just outside of St. Paul by a police officer two years ago. And of course, our city, or the two cities were torn apart. And our staff was just in such pain and we came together and we wanted to do something. But we didn’t know what to do. And one thing, we really knew that whatever we did we had to be authentic. And I think that’s so important.

Kaywin:     And we didn’t want to just do that was superficial or surface. And you know in the end we actually didn’t do anything at the time. We came together and had conversations internally, but we didn’t do anything publicly. And that’s when I really understood what Elizabeth was talking about with the need for Mass Action and the need to have this whole practice and tool kit so that we could be responsive when our community really needed us.

Suze:          Yeah. It’s interesting you talking about the difficulty of having these kinds of conversations. I remember being in Baltimore and working at the BMA at the time that the Freddy Gray death and uprising happened as well. And how as you say, there was this feeling that we didn’t know how to deal with it institutionally. Also personally, and you know for me, I was a fairly newcomer in the Baltimore community and in fact in the US and not having mechanisms, not having ways for either holding those conversations internally or in fact for them thinking about what that means publicly. It was definitely really challenging personally. And it does make me wonder you said at the start of these conversations, that you’ve been having these conversations with your staff over the last several years where they’re feeling quite vulnerable and you’re feeling quite vulnerable as a leader. Have the conversations you’ve been having with Mass Action, with this sector and with the community started to give you better mechanisms for having these conversations internally?

Kaywin:     Absolutely. We do now have a sort of … we have more regular conversations. And conversations about social action, about diversity, equity inclusion and access, about what it means to be a responsive museum in America today. And we have more formal and informal discussions. And I think that we have really healthy conversations on staff. And then we’re also then thinking about how that translates into our work in the galleries. And shifting our exhibition program even so … and our Mass Action tool kit is very well thumbed here, I have to say.

Suze:          Yeah. That’s great. You’ve just opened an exhibition called art of healing which includes artwork made by artists in your community around the shooting of Philando Castile. Is that correct?

Kaywin:                                It is. Yes we just opened it a week ago.

Suze:          Okay. There must be a lot of stakeholders in an exhibition like that. How do you weigh out the risks to the community and all of the different needs that the communities, in fact communities plural, are having when you open an exhibition like that?

Kaywin:     Yeah. As I’ve said to several people, it’s one of the hardest projects we’ve ever done. And it’s actually a small exhibition because you don’t actually need a lot of material to enable people to have the experience and the discussion in this area. And it was hard because we have so many stakeholders and really wanted to make sure that we were doing it right. And for example we had lots of conversations internally about should we put this in a context? Should we include the historical works in our collection? Because of course artists have been expressing, protests, pain, frustration, the need to memorialize since people started making art. And so we thought a lot about including other works or including works that have been made across the nation in the black lives matter movement. And after considering all these different way to present the show we really decided that it needed to be local. That this was a local pain. And that we wanted to show the way that the community had come together. And I think it was a really healthy process that we went through.

Kaywin:     And of course, the project was really initiated by the Castile family when Philando’s mother, Valerie, contacted us and in the most generous and heartfelt way she noted that artists from across the state had been sending her artwork to give her comfort. To help her heal and to memorialize her son’s life. And she wanted to return the generosity. She wanted to share the works with other people.

Kaywin:     And we were so struck by Valerie’s drive, her warmth and kindness. And so we put together that community advisory committee that also helped. And in fact when we talked about decisions like should we include works of art from other parts of the collection, it was our community advisory committee that also advised us not to do that. So we really listened to them, both in terms of the exhibition as well as of course all of the programming we were doing with the show.

Kaywin:     So it’s been a very collaborative process. And you know also, a really difficult one for our board of trustees.

Suze:          Yeah.

Kaywin:     And I have to say our board, Minnesota’s very liberal. Our board supports this museum because they believe in accessibility and our free admission and our mission to enrich the community. So they are passionate about that, but sort of struggled of was this too political. Were we take ago stand? And I tried to say that yes, we are taking a stand. Because this is actually an issue that we need to address.

Kaywin:     And through this process one of the things I finally realized is that I think for a lot of our trustees, they actually just couldn’t understand the show. And our board is 75% white. And they just didn’t quite understand it. And ultimately the show is about a traditionally white power institution of the community acknowledging black trauma and saying we hear you, we acknowledge it. And we want to be a part of your healing process. And I think it’s been very important.

Suze:          Yeah. I think it’s interesting we seem to be talking about a couple of types of risks here. One being the perceived risk to the institution of doing something that’s outside the bounds of what it normally does and what has been usual to date. And then talking about also the risks to the communities and to the vulnerable communities within. And so that need to have things like the community advisory board who can actually really give you that insight as to what is and isn’t appropriate and trying to work in this interesting space of thinking about perceived risk to the institution versus perceived risks to the communities that you’re serving. And how you do sort of mitigate these different needs and these different desires.

Suze:          One of the things I think that is also interesting, at Mia you have just received funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to establish a center for empathy and the visual arts. How does empathy play into these discussions? Why a center for empathy in the visual arts? What are you hoping to achieve with this?

Kaywin:     So I would start to say that in the western world our concept of empathy was really formulated in the ends of the 19th century. And so of course humans have always been empathic. It’s not that the emotion was new, but the word wasn’t coined until 1870 and it came out of the visual arts. And this idea you could feel into something inanimate that somebody else had created and actually have a sense of that person. And so I found it really interesting that it came out of the visual arts.

Kaywin:     And it actually has been proven by social scientists that empathy is decreasing in America right now. They’ve been able to chart it over the last 20 years and it’s in decline. And they’ve also shown that empathy is actually genetic but it can also be taught or learned I should say. So we wanted to think about how we might use this global collection that we have to help people gain a better understanding of both people around the world and people who live in the neighborhood and around us all. And just think about how works of art can help us have greater empathy for people, perhaps people who lived a long time ago and people that we’re close to right now.

Kaywin:     And so we decided that the collection was a great asset to be able to do that. And reached out to a man named Dacher Keltner at Berkeley who’s part of the Greater Good Science Center. And Dacher’s done a lot of work about awe and wonder. And one of the things that he’s shown as well as actually other social scientists is that when people experience wonder that they become less narcissistic. They’re less focused on their daily lives, their cell phone, they actually feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves. They’re connected to humanity. And he’s been able to show that and prove that through scientific research. And so he’s actually our partner in this project because we want to look at how might we use our collections to foster greater empathy among children, teens and adults. We want to look at both formal learning programs. So when we do tours and produce materials as well as informal of just an average adult visitor wandering through our galleries and how we present material.

Kaywin:     So we’re just sort of starting this journey now. And we’ve all been struck by the overwhelming response we’ve had. We’ve been contacted by dancers and musicians and artists and museum workers from across the globe who either are already thinking about this work or want to be a part of it. So we’re kind of like the Mass Action model really excited about being able to be a convener to bring together a lot of these thinkers and think about how we can actually do a better job of fostering empathy.

Suze:          Yeah. It’s really lovely when you talk about sort of that broad impact. It seems that Mia is focused both on the hyper local, but also so broadly on the global and the things that you can take from what you’re doing at the institution and really share very generously with the sector, but also with other sectors.

Kaywin:     I have to say one of the hard parts, actually is trying to develop a new fund raising model for this. And I’m sure many of my colleagues share this feeling. You know, if we want to do the biggest Monet exhibition that’s ever been mounted I have lots other donors to go to. But trying to fund whether it’s Mass Action or another program, I don’t have a donor base that is accustomed to seeing this role of museums in really thinking about how we can be a more integral part of society and public discourse.

Kaywin:     And I’m happy to say that generous people did step forward and we are able to do the work. But it’s really been a new model to bring donors along and see this new avenue of philanthropy.

Suze:          Yeah. That’s super interesting. The funding question is always one that comes up. I think whenever we’re talking about change within the sector. When we’re talking about doing different kinds of work because different kinds of work often take different kinds of money. But it’s interesting to think about these sort of problems within that context as well.

Suze:          Kaywin, at some point you were going to be ready to move on from Mia.

Kaywin:     No.

Suze:          Right.

Kaywin:     It can’t happen. No.

Suze:          It will happen at some point. Do you then think about how the work that you’re doing now basically how that’s embedded, not just into the institutional strategy, but really into the institutional DNA so that these approaches to the way that your work outlasts you? I think one of the challenges we often see is people associate individual leaders with particular types of work within museums. And it’s interesting to think about how you build sustainability planning for this kind of approach and this kind of change. I’d love to hear more about how you’re thinking about that.

Kaywin:     Well of course I do this that by building a sustainable model, so a donor base is absolutely one way. A lot of the Mass Action and internal work I think that we’ve done has helped our staff develop a vision for what kind of institution we can be. And so I think really the majority of the staff does share the interest and values certainly that I and our leadership team have, and the kind of museum we want to be about. And so I do think that it’s institution wide. But I also think that when somebody else does come in here that America has changed.

Suze:          Yeah.

Kaywin:     And this is the America that’s here to stay. And to perhaps there might be somebody else who doesn’t agree with it in the moment, but I do think this is the future for museums. And I’ve said frequently that we put our heads in the sand to our own peril.

Suze:          Yeah.

Kaywin:     This work is messy and it’s difficult. But it’s important. And is about the sustainability for the future.

Suze:          Yeah. If someone who’s thinking about one day being a museum director doesn’t want to take on this kind of change maybe it’s not the right career for them.

Kaywin:     Yeah. Absolutely.

Suze:          Kaywin, thank you so, so much for giving this really insightful perspective. If people do want to talk to you about this further, if they’d like to follow up with the work that’s happening at Mia, is Twitter the best way to contact you? What’s the best way for them to follow up?

Kaywin:     Yeah. At Kaywin Feldman is a great way to reach out and contact me.

Suze:          That’s great. Kaywin, Thank you so much.

Kaywin:     Thank you for the invitation. I really enjoyed it and appreciate all the work that you’re doing in really helping the field to think more broadly and think differently. So thank you, Suze

Suze:          Thank you.

Suze:          Thank you LaTanya, Mike and Kaywin for joining me on Museopunks this month. Just as museums are not neutral, podcasts are not neutral either. And it’s been wonderful to have the opportunity to share this important conversation with you. I look forward to bringing you more conversations about progressive practice in museums in all its forms soon.

Suze:          Museopunks is presented every month by the American Alliance of Museums. You can connect with me on Twitter at Museopunks or check out the extended show notes at

Suze:          And of course, you can subscribe any time at iTunes or Stitcher.

Suze:          Just one quick note before I sign off. During the last couple of weeks, I have been painting the insides of my kitchen cabinets. This seems like a pretty ridiculous thing to talk about on the podcast but it turns out that doing low cost, low scale renovations has become an incredibly vital method of relaxation for me. Who knew? I mention this to remind you wherever you are to find something small and personal that relaxes you and helps center you.

Suze:          Self care continues to be so important. So spend a little bit of time doing something just for yourself one day this week.

Suze:          Cheers.


LaTanya S. Autry

Image of a black woman standing in front of a wall with various striped lines in different widths and hues of blue red and pink. As a cultural organizer in the visual arts, LaTanya S. Autry centers social justice and public memory in her work. In addition to co-creating The Art of Black Dissent, an interactive program that promotes public dialogue about the African-American liberation struggle, she co-produced #MuseumsAreNotNeutral, and the Social Justice and Museums Resource List, a crowd-sourced bibliography. LaTanya has curated exhibitions and organized programs at Yale University Art Gallery, Artspace New Haven, Mississippi Museum of Art, Tougaloo College, and the Crane Art Center. Through her graduate studies at the University of Delaware, where she is completing her Ph.D. in art history, LaTanya has developed expertise in art of the United States, photography, and museums. Her dissertation The Crossroads of Commemoration: Lynching Landscapes in America, concentrates on the interplay of race, representation, memory, and public space.

Mike Murawski

A black and white selfie of a man standing outside with rocks and trees behind him. Museum educator, cultural activist, nature lover, and currently the Director of Education & Public Programs for the Portland Art Museum. Mike is Founding Editor of, a collaborative online forum that launched in 2011. Mike earned his MA and PhD in Education from American University in Washington, DC, focusing his research on educational theory and arts learning. He previously held positions as Director of School Services at the Saint Louis Art Museum and Head of Education and Public Programs at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University in St. Louis.

Kaywin Feldman

Kaywin Feldman, Duncan and Nivin MacMillan Director and President of the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia)Kaywin Feldman is the Nivin and Duncan MacMillan Director and President of the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) since 2008. She also serves on the boards of National Arts Strategies, the Chipstone Foundation, and is a member of the Bizot Group. She is a past president of theAssociation of Art Museum Directors, and a past chair of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) . You can find Kaywin on Twitter @kaywinfeldman.

Show Notes

#MuseumsAreNotNeutral – Campaign

#MuseumsAreNotNeutral – Twitter

Changing the Things I Cannot Accept: Museums Are Not Neutral

To Fight Racism Within Museums, They Need to Stop Acting Like They’re Neutral

#CiteBlackWomen – Twitter

Social Justice in Museums Resource List

Museum leadership in a time of crisis

MASS Action

Minneapolis Institute of Art Receives Two Major Grants in Support of Empathy and Diversity Initiatives

Presenting Sponsor

Museopunks is presented by the American Alliance of Museums.

Graphic Design of the Museopunks logo is by Selena Robleto.


Twitter: @museopunks

Episode 26: Decolonise the Museum!

The vision of the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, Maine, describes how the museum “will reflect and realize the values of decolonization in all of its practices, working with the Wabanaki Nations to share their stories, history, and culture with a broader audience.” But what does it take to decolonise a museum? How does it change the governance structure and the practices of the board? What kinds of frameworks and internal work are necessary to shift the balance of authority within the institution, and turn theory into actionable change?

In this episode of Museopunks, Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, President & CEO of the Abbe Museum, delves into the complexities of decolonisation.

Suse Anderson:                Good day, and welcome to Museopunks, the podcast for the progressive museum. My name is Suse Anderson, and I will be your host today as we explore progressive bounds of museum practice in all its forms. Now, in today’s highly political environment, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the implications of the troubling history of museums as bastions of colonial conquest. Museums are not neutral spaces, and much of the work that we do exists as the result of conquest and colonialism, of domination, destruction and exploitation. These are traditions that have not disappeared nor been fully grappled with. The impact of our history, our traditions, and the broad institutional context which is interlinked with many other institutions shapes our collections and our exhibitions, our governance structures and hiring practices, the way knowledge is created, categorized, communicated and valued, and so much more.

In this context, questions about who is and isn’t included in the work that museums do, about whose voices are heard or rendered mute, and whose histories are being told and how those histories are given life take on pretty sharp focus. So while academic criticism and internal critique of the history and nature of museum practice has existed for decades, the last few years have brought a significant uptick in public discussion and awareness about the more troubling aspects of museum practice.

Perhaps the most visible example of this is found in Marvel Comics’ record-breaking movie, Black Panther, which was released in February this year. In one five-minute scene filmed in the fictional Museum of Great Britain, a pretty disturbing picture of museum work emerged. It included exploitative and problematic acquisition practices, the telling of false or inaccurate narratives about cultural objects, and the dismissal of the knowledge of people of color. Surely, the inclusion of such a scene in the tenth highest grossing film of all time brings home this moment as something of a reckoning for the sector.

So today we’re going to address one of the most challenging questions facing museums. How can museums decolonize? Is decolonization even possible? These are the questions at the heart of today’s discussion with Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, CEO and president at the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, Maine. The Abbe has decolonization at the heart of its vision and practices, and Cinnamon is going to share some of what she has learned so far on the journey towards decolonization. Of course, a single podcast episode is limited in its capacity to unpack these deeply complex issues, but this was a really interesting interview to record, and I hope you find it as useful and interesting as I did.

Working in museums for more than 20 years, Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko has been a museum director since 2001. Prior to joining the Abbe Museum as president and CEO in 2009, Cinnamon was the director of the General Lew Wallace Study & Museum, where she led the organization to the National Medal for Museum Service in 2008. She’s currently a board member of Maine Humanities Council and the American Alliance of Museums. She’s the co-editor and chapter author for the Small Museum Toolkit, a six-book series which was published in 2012, and her most recent publication, Museum Administration 2.0, was published in 2016.

Cinnamon, welcome to Museopunks.

Cinnamon:                          Thank you. I’m glad to be here.

Suse Anderson:                It is so wonderful to be here, and in fact to be here in person. It’s something that I don’t normally get to do is sit and have a face-to-face conversation with my guest, so it’s so lovely to have you here.

Cinnamon:                          Delighted to be here.

Suse Anderson:                So, before we start, we’re going to talk today about decolonizing the museum, which is something that you’ve been thinking about a lot and working and building really deliberately into practice at the Abbe Museum. But I think it’s useful for us to get a sense of the Abbe Museum before we start in to talk a little bit about the context. I know that the vision for the museum says that the museum “will reflect and realize the values of decolonization in all of its practices, working with the Wabanaki Nations to share their stories, history, and culture with a broader audience.” Can you talk a little bit more about the Abbe, about Bar Harbor and about the museum in general?

Cinnamon:                          Sure. The Abbe was founded long ago, 1928, inside what is now Acadia National Park, which is a major destination on the Eastern seaboard. Big tourist area, was then, still is today. And then in 2001, they opened their downtown facility, which was that modern, exciting, new way of doing museum work. I inherited a really wonderful working relationship with the Wabanaki communities when I arrived in 2009. Programs have been delivered led by Wabanaki people for years, exhibits being done collaboratively, everything you can imagine. Just to clarify too, the Wabanaki Nations refers to five tribes: The Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Mi’kmaq, Maliseet and Abenaki. We focus really on Maine, but the homeland is New England up through Canada, New Brunswick in to the Maritimes, so it’s a really large geographic area that Wabanaki people consider their home and our closest tribal community to us in Bar Harbor is about an hour away, so it’s massive geography that we’re trying to communicate to a really quick visiting audience.

So the best way for years had been to really be collaborative. We have those traditional practices and have had that all along. We still operate that original location inside Acadia National Park in the peak season in the months which is a very short season. So it’s this really intense, exciting, beautiful place to be, and we’ve added to that mission a focus on decolonization, which became so apparent to us as we were moving along thinking about how do we work collaboratively in a full-scale, across-the-board way. It’s not just exhibits. It’s not just programming. We can’t persist in that way, and we were talking more and more about how engagement can deepen, how content can change with Wabanaki people, and with our first Native Advisory Council convening, which would have been in about 2012, it became quite clear that my board of trustees didn’t really know how to wrap their heads around it. I joke often that trustees don’t really sit around reading museum history. They don’t.

Suse Anderson:                Huh. What?

Cinnamon:                          As much as I wish they would. Why would they? And so, just to understand that relationship of museums and Native people was really fresh information, and that’s really where the story begins. The complicated board meeting.

Suse Anderson:                Do you feel comfortable telling us a little bit more about that complicated board meeting?

Cinnamon:                          I do. Yes. It’s so vivid in my memory too. It was that complicated. As I mentioned, the Native Advisory Council, they convened, and we designed the Native Advisory Council to be, and this was a collaborative conversation with tribal members, each member is appointed by tribal leadership from the communities in Maine.

Suse Anderson:                Great.

Cinnamon:                          So there are five, so two per community, so that makes 10 people. We have our first convening. We’re really excited as a staff. Our board chair’s there. Really excited to hear and communicate. We have this full agenda, and toward the end of the day, we ask what should governance look like at the Abbe? What should it be? Because there had been, I would say, intermittent engagement at the board level, and at that point there was only one Native person at the time, maybe two actually, on the board, if I’m thinking correctly.

The question being asked seemed quite simple, and the response was quite simple from council, but it wasn’t when it translated to the board. The response from the council was there should be one person from each community appointed by tribal leadership, so five seats available on the board always. A chief may decide I’m not going to appoint right now. I don’t have the person. That’s their jurisdiction, but there would always be a symbolic seat. We loved that idea. We’re like oh my gosh, that’s a great place to begin.

Fast forward to the next board meeting where we make the report. Darren Ranco who’s one of my wonderful colleagues in this work, he’s a Penobscot anthropologist at University of Maine. He was on the board at the time, was at that meeting. He was charged to deliver the report from council, and it didn’t go well. There were concerns, and at the end of the day when I do the analysis, it was fear. It was uncertainty, but there were comments like, “Well, five people could create a voting block.”

My response, and I think Darren’s response probably too was if five Native people tell you not to do something, you shouldn’t be doing it. Very clear.

Suse Anderson:                Yeah.

Cinnamon:                          There was fear about, a really flippant thinking that, “Well, we just don’t need to worry about this. We can all just get along.” Well, that’s not reality, and your privilege is showing, so let’s dig a little deeper, and a lot of confusion. We paused. I was really only asking them at that board meeting for their support to start having the conversation because I didn’t feel like I could just go out and start changing governance without their support. I just wanted to start talking to tribal leadership and see if the interest was there. They agreed I think hesitantly to that, but the next week we had a debriefing between Darren, as I mentioned, and my board chair, Sandy Wilcox, who was a hero and champion through all this, to really look at what happened. It was very clear that there’s no point in moving forward at this point in time because they needed to understand what sovereignty is. If they don’t understand sovereignty, how in the world are they going to begin to understand why governance should change, why authority should be questioned, why ownership should be a complicated conversation.

They couldn’t even, and I don’t blame them, I mean, we hadn’t provided space for that either. The staff had already been working in a direction that was around that, but we needed a net to catch us quite frankly. We’d been working from gut. We’d been working collaboratively, but we hadn’t been working as a staff with a strategic approach or a … It’s more than that. It was more one-on-one relationships. So one person can tell you something. The next person might tell you something differently, but if there isn’t unified messaging as you communicate with tribal communities and back and forth, then it’s going to get muddled, and we were in that place.

So fast forward again that same year. 2012 was a big year for us. We had a board retreat, and that’s what we decided was the thing we needed to do was focus on sovereignty and understanding that as a board and staff. Big joint meeting. Brought in a facilitator, Jamie Bissonnette Lewey, who’s Abenaki. She is currently the chair of the Maine Indian Tribal State Commission. Long, wonderful career in community health and healing practice, social justice. Rock star. She’s not a board member, so I’m very lucky to have her on board. She led them through a day-long conversation.

At the end of the day, and I don’t know if many people have the opportunity to experience this, but when a change is happening, you can really feel it. It becomes emotional. Your skin starts to tickle. At the end of the day, we were all tingling. We could feel, I even get excited now thinking about it. You could feel something was going to happen, and a commitment was forming. In the next board meeting after that retreat was when we created a decolonization initiative and task force. Five years later, you have the vision that you just shared and a whole framework for operating.

Suse Anderson:                So let’s talk a little bit more about that framework. You have a great blog which actually talks about a lot of the work that you are doing at the Abbe. On the blog, I noticed that as applied to the relationship of institutions such as museums to the Native people of the United States, decolonization means at a minimum sharing authority for the documentation and interpretation of Native culture. But it sounds like you already had a lot of practices that were collaborative, so going to this idea of a framework, what actual practices have you started embedding that are then different from something that is collaborative and just working together? It feels like you’re being both more deliberate. You’re creating structures that are around these practices to actually change what your work looks like. What does the framework start to look like, and in what areas does it impact?

Cinnamon:                          For us, it’s everything. We did some research in those early days calling our friends and peers across the U.S. in tribal and non-tribal museums asking a series of questions to find out how decolonizing work was representing itself. We suspected that it was hiding out in academia. Really being written about, good writings, especially the work of Amy Lonetree, who we work with still today, and her writings have been really informative. We suspected academia had a hold on this, but we didn’t have a sense of practice. That bore out quite well in the research. We found that most people didn’t even use the word, but they might have elements of it. For us, the framework we use, which comes from Amy Lonetree’s work is collaboration, privileging indigenous voice and perspective, and truth-telling, which I’ll dig into in a minute for you.

They were kind of doing that here and there, but only around exhibits. Maybe some programming, but really only exhibits. We were more interested, obviously because of where we started with the question of governance, we were more interested in the whole operation. How does a museum work within that framework? So we realized we didn’t have many peers in this pretty quick. We’ve since really been growing a community of practice, which is exciting. There are good examples now, but it just didn’t exist.

For us though, moving forward with that understanding, we did assess our exhibits. We looked at them with this cute little grid that I could show the board and say, “Hey, this is how we’ve been coming along, and this is where we need to go with those three parts.” But as we began to look at governance, we had no idea where to turn, and I can talk more about where we are today, because we are really in it deep, but just to back up a little bit, say more about the framework.

For us, collaboration means so much more than the word. It’s at the very beginning of a project… an idea. We check in with permissions. We check in to make sure it’s an idea that we should share, or we receive an idea from the tribal communities and make sure we collaborate, and then we stay connected throughout the whole life of a project. Does that mean every single activity I do or one of the staff does? Not necessarily, but we make sure messaging is out there. People can provide input. We meet often. Our Native Advisory Council now meets monthly by phone to really check in, so we’re trying to make sure that it’s a full collaboration, beginning, middle and end. Mostly sees itself with exhibits, I will confess, but that’s probably going to change soon.

Second part would be privileging indigenous voice and perspective, and that means, in all honesty, really setting aside non-Native scholarship. We’ve heard a lot from non-Native scholars, and bringing forward what is coming from the communities, what Native people have written, what has been published, what hasn’t been published, to really build the content from there…

Suse Anderson:                Amazing.

Cinnamon:                          … and have that personal perspective really carry through. There is room of course for all scholarship in every conversation and they can be in conflict, and I’m okay with that. We’re all okay with that so long as it’s not creating harm. That’s the thing.

Suse Anderson:                Okay, and is that one of your driving questions or motivations? Will this create harm?

Cinnamon:                          Absolutely. We’re always asking that question because we might find as if you’re a non-Native person looking at content for the first time, you might find it so energizing. It’s so interesting, but it could be really painful for somebody else, so that really leads to the third one, truth-telling. We cannot understand the issues of today unless we understand the deep issues of the past. We’re talking 12,000 plus years of people in the homeland where we are. There’s not a removal story. This of course counts for all Native people, but especially in Maine, they’ve always been there. You have to understand that as a full history and that genocide happened. Atrocities happened, and that colonization’s still having an impact, and the legacies are present today.

If you can’t tell that full story, you can never understand why the mascot issue is such a big deal in Maine as it is in other places. You can’t even begin to understand hunting and fishing issues we have in Maine. You can’t begin to understand the water issues, and the list goes on unless you see the full truth of history.

So those three things are important, and that delicate balance I would say really happens between that indigenous perspective and truth-telling. That’s where collaboration can solve it because you could easily do an exhibit let’s say anywhere. You could easily do an exhibit about forced removal of children whether it’s the boarding school story or it’s the current result with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission we had in Maine that looked at the removal, the inordinate number of removals of Native children from families through the foster care program. It’s all connected.

You could tell that story and really be a trigger for someone learning it the first time from a Native community. How can you tell that in a way that doesn’t create pain? The answer is always going to be with first person perspective and decision making and authority from the Native group that’s responsible or involved. Fortunately in that example, Truth and Reconciliation Commission created a body of wonderful people in the Wabanaki communities telling their own stories, right?

Suse Anderson:                Okay.

Cinnamon:                          So it’s stepping aside, letting that come forward, and you create space that’s safer. You really do. But you also have to think about what you wrap around it. There’s more to the story, and making sure there’s ways to walk into it or leave it. One of the great important learnings when we did a couple years ago our new core exhibit, People of the First Light, which was a … We would assess as a fully decolonized exhibit. The great piece of advice and request that came from the communities was when you tell those difficult stories, make sure that you opt in, because we don’t want Wabanaki children coming in and feeling oppressed and hurt. Of course, we could support that.

So there’s always a difference. I think some communities will say I don’t want it in there at all, and that’s okay. That’s their choice to decide and go in opposition is a colonizing act, and that’s not something we’re interested in.

Suse Anderson:                Yeah. I think this is very interesting. There’s some writing that Courtney Johnston in New Zealand has actually been doing lately, and she talks about, I’m just going to find a reference to it. She talks about how museums are somehow a neutralizing, we’ve acted that museums are somehow a neutralizing force.

Cinnamon:                          Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                And that to some extent, we’ve taught our audiences to expect that, and therefore she says, you know, “It’s true because we’ve made it so,” and then she continues, “but museums are still capable of doing violence often unknowingly or thoughtlessly.” I think that’s what you’re talking about. You’re actually talking about institutions dealing with trauma, and as institutions we’re often not really well-equipped for dealing with that. So I’d love to just hear a little bit more about even the sorts of preparations then you do with staff for … Staff are obviously also having to provide a space for the telling of traumatic stories but you don’t want to exploit someone’s trauma for your work or for your gain. So how do you deal with those sorts of circumstances?

Cinnamon:                          That’s a really good question, and I’ve learned a lot, and I continue to learn because I think that while every organization has missteps as they make change, I feel that there’s more at stake because if we don’t prepare our skills, our training, give space for healing, then we cause more harm, right?

Suse Anderson:                Yeah.

Cinnamon:                          So if that’s the bottom line, I have to be hyper sensitive. Having said that, as a smaller institution in a fast-paced location, things get away from you, and so that constantly plagues me. As we got started, we did a few things to test the waters. Back in, gosh, I think it was actually 2013, so a year after all this is born, we put together a series of introductory labels in our Orientation Gallery. We have a nice space that you can come in before you ever go into what I call the paywall after admission. We want people to understand whether they pay or not, that there are Wabanaki people in Maine, they haven’t left, and oh, by the way, this is a different kind of museum experience. So we put some labeling together for that and to hear what people said.

That went well. People were very curious, but we neglected to train the frontline staff in how to respond to these complicated questions. I don’t know what we were thinking. We just wanted the visitors to respond and hear what they had to say. At the time, there were certainly Native people working on the frontline as well, so it was this even heightened terror that I suddenly realized a year later after the season’s over and you’re reflecting back that oops, we should have prepared them in some way. And we’ve taken time since then to do that.

About the same time we had started racial bias training to make sure we recognized it in ourselves, in each other, and how to interact. That sill wasn’t enough. In the same time period, we became members of the International Coalition for the Sites of Conscience. Huge fan girl for that group.

Suse Anderson:                I will pop a link in the show notes.

Cinnamon:                          Please. They prescribe, if you will, a methodology around facilitated dialog. We have now done that as a full team twice. Players have changed on the staff and we continue a cycle of training, but more or less, twice now we’ve done it. The first time we did this training over the course of a couple days, I foolishly thought we were then going to produce programming and everything’s going to be different. Instead, we were learning how to talk to each other.

Suse Anderson:                Yes.

Cinnamon:                          It’s really tough to even talk to each other sometimes. If you can’t do that, how are you going to talk to your audience about complicated conversations?

Suse Anderson:                Yes.

Cinnamon:                          So that became a team building focused thinking result, and then a couple years later, we brought our trainer back. Sarah Pharaon, and we then could imagine what programming looks like and make changes, ask the questions we need to ask, and it’s all about making sure everyone in the conversation has a place to stay in in that conversation, that they feel welcomed in, but in a way held accountable. So you develop these non-negotiables that you know when the line is crossed that you’re not going to encourage that, ennoble. So often it’s around racial issues or things like that. You just know that it’s not a line you’re even allowed across, but you’ve been trained to redirect, dig deeper when needed, and help everyone feel in the conversation.

I hesitate to use the word relevancy, but it is part of it. The conversation begins in a way or the program or the prompt in an exhibit begins in a way that you can relate right out of the gates. Something about family or home or experience. How do you describe X? You can find an answer in yourself, and then draw in, and that has been a really pivotal move, I think, for us to do that work. Now we’re developing programming that’s got facilitated dialog embedded, whether it’s just a prompt question, but we’re also doing full-on facilitated experiences where you sit down and work through a process, a problem, and you opt in to be doing it.

We tried a few years ago to do daily conversations, which a lot of sites do, and that did not work for us because of the tourism audience. They just, they’re so random. On a rainy day we’re flooded with people, so it’s really tough to hold a group. So we’ve backed off a little bit and instead just embedded it in slighter ways in everything that we do, and lo and behold, our wonderful education team has become quite skilled at it. They’re feeling very natural in it, and it makes a difference.

Suse Anderson:                Yeah. I think that’s a huge thing. I mean, I know that even just personally, starting to move from talking about, say, technology and what that meant for museums into much more social justice issues and thinking about how to talk to them, it’s not been natural for me. Figuring out how to listen appropriately, how to find a voice, how to make space for other voices, it’s an ongoing thing I’m having to learn. It’s one of the nice things about podcasting, is the whole point is actually to be listening to other people.

But these things are not fast processes even when you are working with others who have been through it and who can teach you. There’s so much internal work that you have to be doing, much less also trying to be doing outward facing work and outward work, and doing the two of them at the same time. It’s a very complex thing to be doing, and to be doing it as an individual is hard enough, not to mention doing it as an institution.

You mentioned, so 2012 was when you had the big board conversation. Where is the board now, and how have you started to change governance, and what have been the results?

Cinnamon:                          It’s a very exciting time. Let me think. Last year was the first time, for a variety of reasons, we hadn’t really traveled our Native Advisory Council meeting, and last year we traveled to Sipayik, which is one of the Passamaquoddy communities, and it was phenomenal because not only did we have our council there, but the tribal leaders showed up and came and stayed for most of the day, and it was just a really heartfelt, curious, challenging day. A lot of questions I didn’t anticipate, which you’ve got to get out there and be in the space to hear them…came forward. The huge upshot of that day was that they wanted to talk to us more. They want more, more, more, and they realized that we had to come up with some other ways because we’ve been so patterned in meeting in person that they were willing to do weekly calls or not weekly, rather monthly calls, and really stay in the day-to-day conversation as much as they could.

We were very excited. We of course welcomed that, but the other thing that came out of that meeting is that they really wanted to meet jointly with our board of trustees. Not every time, but for sure let’s do it for once, a start. So that fall, which this was last year, October. We had our board retreat. We do it every year like every good board. Our board retreat was when they decided we could do this joint meeting. We had a couple of presentations on some great topics that were very decolonizing around traditional knowledge as well as the new ambassador for the Penobscot Nation came and talked to us about what’s happening currently.

In between all that was a facilitated conversation about how we work together. The result was they always want to meet together if they can, and that we probably need a different governance model, and that governance in the U.S. at least does not match a decolonizing organization. It is so oppositional, especially when you look at Robert’s Rules of Order. It’s very hierarchical. It’s militaristic. It’s masculine. Robert’s Rules was something we knew we wanted to get rid of.

Suse Anderson:                I only encountered Robert’s Rules in the last 12 months. I had not encountered this before, and it is fascinating and yes, incredibly … I think it can be empowering for certain voices and quite disempowering for a lot of other voices.

Cinnamon:                          Absolutely. Absolutely, and it just sets a tone. It’s unnecessary. This is not how decisions need to be made. We knew consensus was a possibility, and we’re still learning about what works there with consensus, but that for example was the one thing that is just so opposite of a decolonizing framework. The Native Advisory Council wants to be more engaged. We want more Native people on the board, and that’s growing and growing and growing. Where do the decisions need to happen? Are we being redundant? Are we just creating conflict unnecessarily? Do they merge? Does “advisory” change to some different name? I think where we’re at now is that Advisory Council will probably continue, but they’re not advisors. They’re going to be Wabanaki Council. I feel like there’s some authority building there that everybody’s really excited about. I just don’t know what it looks like.

Suse Anderson:                Okay.

Cinnamon:                          I think governance, the board of trustees model will probably continue to evolve with growing participation from Wabanaki people, but this conversation started even a year prior. We had started rolling out protocols. We knew that was a way to create some lasting structure. When the players move, we want to make sure there’s policy and protocols in place that persist as a decolonizing institution. So we’d started laying down those tracks about a year ago, and our first one was governance. On the table during this board meeting, this board retreat rather, was this protocol that says now, and it’s not been finalized. It’s all in draft because it’s a big debate. But it prescribes that we would return to the original idea, which is hilarious to me, of five appointed people on the board.

So they went right back to it. Different board members, but they went right to it. But it takes a step further. The second part is that we would achieve parity between Wabanaki and non-Wabanaki people by 2021, and then the third part is that we would deepen our approach, engagement, relationships with the Canadian communities to really start thinking of the homeland in its full context, which is a whole other challenge for a variety of reasons, and some people in the Wabanaki communities might not want that. So it’s a bigger conversation that we have to figure out as a Maine organization.

So those three things are in this protocol that are not finalized, and in the middle of that, there’s a growing engagement between the two bodies moving forward. So coming out of the retreat last fall was the creation of another task force, a governance restructuring task force, representatives from each group to start talking about where we need to go, and our quick finding was that it’s not going to be quick, and that it’s probably at least three years to prepare everybody for answers to come along in a complex way as part of this process. But that we really can’t move forward unless we understand what our organizational principles are. A lot of organizations of course have values, principles. We had not done that in our strategic planning process because we focus so much on the framework, which is value driven. It just doesn’t say, “These are our values, and here’s our list.”

But it became quite apparent in this process that if we have these principles, these touchstones as Jamie Bissonnette Lewey calls them, we can’t make decisions about who makes decisions, what do we value the most. And we just had that board meeting on Friday night, a facilitated conversation about our principles. We are in that process, and it’s so exciting. I’m like got the chills again because I think we’re going to come out of it with a beautiful set of ideals that will decide how governance looks, and it’s not going to be the traditional format we see in the U.S.

Suse Anderson:                There’s two questions that come out of that for me. The first one is going to be about funding because governance is so often so tightly linked to funding models. I’m really curious as to whether then your funding models have shifted in response to the work that you’re doing, and if not, how that has a power impact on what you’re doing.

The second question, and we’ll get back to this a little bit, I’m really interested, you’re been very transparent about this process as well, and I’m interested as to what impact you think that has on the work that you’re doing.

Cinnamon:                          Sure. Well, the money question, that’s always in the room, it’s always in my head in good and bad ways. As we started this process, I think it’s fair to say that there are board members that were concerned, but they couldn’t really say why. They couldn’t really do a back-of-envelope calculation and figure out any of it. It was just back to that fear of the unknown. As we got started, we started to build our messaging, and our messaging is very, you cannot visit the Abbe now and not know that we are decolonizing. As that deepened, we could deepen our fundraising messages, we could deepen our marketing messages and transform the conversation. We did that pretty quick.

The funding came along. There’s been some change. There’s been really one donor I know of who’s dropped out, and it’s for all of the complicated reasons he carries with him, and I’m fine with that. He was so kind to write it all out for us too, so I can show it and say, “Listen, this isn’t how we’re working. This isn’t where we want to go.” But on the flip of that, it’s brought in so many more new donors, and foundations respond, and we now have requests to apply for foundation grants from foundations we didn’t even know they existed or these quiet little silent helpers that are waiting for change like this to happen.

Suse Anderson:                Great.

Cinnamon:                          I think it’d be, if you take the long view, we’re going to look back and say that we’ve multiplied our giving and our support as a result. But you have to be transparent about it. You have to tell people. I think some organizations leap into good change like this, but don’t put the messaging in bed with it. You’ve got to. We were talking about it immediately. Even though we didn’t have marketing funds, we were finding ways to do it through social media. Social media’s been huge for us. The blog, we try to keep up with as much as we can, and FYI, any delays on that decolonizing blog is totally mine. That’s all me. I’m going to get back on it real soon.

But telling people about it was the commitment from number one. And also there was for selfish reasons. We wanted to learn. We didn’t have the answers. I talked about that research earlier. We didn’t know what people are doing, so please talk to us. What’s going on? Here’s what we’re thinking about. So from the very beginning, we started presenting it at the AAM conference, the AASLH conference, and creating a space for the conversation. Those conversations have changed in five years, which is really exciting, and I think that’s the big upshot of the transparency.

Suse Anderson:                That’s fantastic. I think there’s something that I have been thinking about a lot. There was a really interesting blog post a few weeks ago from Sumaya Kassim I’m going to link to in the show notes, and she talks, she argues that museums will not be decolonized, and she uses an Audre Lorde quote who says, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

It sounds like you are changing the tools of your work, but do you think full decolonization of museums or within museums is possible, or is it just a shifting of the power structures? Is it a changing by a matter of degrees as opposed to really upending what we’re doing?

Cinnamon:                          No. They cannot be decolonized. That would be the short answer. I, early on, because I am all about change. I love it, no matter what it is. So early on, I was using my typical tools of, okay, here’s the path forward. Here’s how we go. Here’s what we do this. Who do I go to talk to? And that quickly needed to be set aside, and I just had to be a passenger in this process, which is a learning for me. One of my early learnings was when we were presenting, I think it was at AAM several years ago, and a woman stands up during the conversation and says, “I hear what you’re saying, and I’m excited for you, but the word museum is a colonized word, so how can you even begin to decolonize if that is the word you’re using?”

Suse Anderson:                Yes.

Cinnamon:                         It hadn’t occurred to any of us. Of course it is. Yeah. So that’s when we started digging deeper in the history even more and thinking about that. I firmly agree that museums are the receptacles in so many ways of colonizing forces and by that they become colonizing forces themselves. It’s where the spoils of war go.

Suse Anderson:                Yes.

Cinnamon:                          Museums however, and I will always believe this, museums can be everything we need them to be. They are amazing. They are wonderful. When they identify the structural racism within museums, they can help educate a public because, oh, by the way, it’s not just museums that are problematic.

Suse Anderson:                Ah, yeah. Right?

Cinnamon:                          There’s a long list.

Suse Anderson:                And in fact one of the challenges I think is that most of our institutions are interlinked. So if you think about, I’ll look at the art market because it’s what I’m most familiar with. If you think about where money is and how that relates to power structures and how that relates to museum acquisitions, all of these institutions are interlinked. So museums are not alone in this, but they’re also then … There are so many forces beyond us that even when we’re talking about something like decolonizing an individual institution, we’re not doing it in a vacuum.

Cinnamon:                         Right, and even I just thought of the argument years ago that was made by people like Sarah Sutton about greening museums was that everybody needs to think about ways to save energy and reduce our carbon footprint, but museums especially need to do it because it’s where people learn, and they really take in information in really well-documented ways that we know, but it is this place of learning. So if we can demonstrate the structural racism embedded, we can influence a bigger change than we could ever imagine. It’s why museums are not neutral spaces, to return to that idea. They never have been and they never will be because neutral is a political decision, and that’s just not something that we have the duty to do as museums.

Suse Anderson:                Speaking of politics, one of the things that I had been thinking about is the role of museums as political actors. So rather than just being a place for civic discourse and as a civic space, but what our role is in actually taking political action as institutions. In your work with the Wabanaki nations, do you have a sense of the Abbe as a political force as well, or is it mostly making space for other people to have discussions and discourse and being that civic space?

Cinnamon:                          That’s a great question because we struggled with that early on. As my board changed and as we were moving into the strategic planning process, we were recruiting board members who were global thinkers, who had nonprofit experience, who could look at those tensions, as well as all the other usual suspects for a board, as well as Wabanaki people. So the voices were changing in that strategic planning process, and that’s where the idea of transparency came forward very clearly, but with that was advocacy. If we’re going to do this work, shouldn’t we tell everybody and tell them to do it too, was the big question. Because it feels almost colonizing if we keep it to ourselves, right?

Suse Anderson:                Right.

Cinnamon:                          So we grappled with that, and it was interesting because we had three big retreat meetings with the strategic planning process, and it changed through that. In addition, we had a big meeting with the Native Advisory Council, and I watched that conversation change, and at the very end the way it circled back was yes, but Wabanaki people speak for themselves, and they always have, and they always will, and if we ever stood in the way of that, that’s a colonizing act, right?

Suse Anderson:                Right.

Cinnamon:                          So us making a commentary when a reporter calls before they’ve talked to a Wabanaki person would be a problem, especially with all the political issues in Maine today around sovereign rights. That’s not our place. Our place certainly is to create resources for when for example that journalist calls, we can point them to say these are things we’ve published. This is the source. This is who you need to talk to. We can be a kind of, because no matter what we do, for some reason, non-Native people have a tough time reaching out to the Native communities, and they think, oh, well the Abbe would know all the answers. I mean there’s a good thing to that. That means we are a place of learning and resources. Hurray. But there is some kind of, I don’t know if it’s laziness, disconnect. I don’t know what it is, but they just don’t think to call the tribe, which you could do.

So sometimes we get a lot of calls like that, so we knew that it was a reality that we had to resolve what’s our advocacy role, and of course hearing from Wabanaki people, they have affirmed that. Yeah, it’s not our role. But well there’s still something, and so that’s why we decided that our role is, and this here again we’re turning to Darren Ranco, who I mentioned earlier. I remember him saying this vividly, that we have the opportunity to reduce pain in museum spaces all over, so why wouldn’t we want to do that?

So the other reason for the transparency, but now what we’re working on, we have a big grant application pending, so all fingers crossed that we can create a Museum Decolonization Institute, MuseDI. It’s cute. Also stands for MDI, Mount Desert Island where we are, MuseDI, and that we could use the Abbe as a lab. In the winter when there’s not a lot of people around, come in, be critical, look at these spaces, hear from scholars in this work. Amy Lonetree’s interested in being on board. Darren Ranco who I’ve mentioned. Bringing in indigenous scholars to talk this through and help people get started.

That’s the only thing we can help people do. We can’t tell people how it’s going to look, where it’s going to go because it’s unique to your history as well as the relationships you have or don’t have with tribal communities. We can help you get started through I think a methodology of internal work, external work and how those relate, but also understanding that the board has got to be on the same page and how to get them there and what leadership’s role is in all those parts and pieces coming together to get started, and help them have that container of conversation that’s protected and supported. We think we can provide that every year.

And then we expand from that with a lot of consultations we’ve already been doing, traveling to other museums to help them start conversations. We believe that’s our political choice and advocacy role.

Suse Anderson:                That’s really lovely. Two final questions. Has this changed your sense of what a museum looks like?

Cinnamon:                          That’s a great question. Yes. For sure. It’s changed how I look at every decision, process, and structure. Can I have a result or an answer or an opportunity with each look? No, but it’s really started this new conversation in my head through the staff. I also recognize that we can’t change everything all at once, and so that urgency really weighs on me, and it’s definitely affected which museums I choose to visit, because I was a very inclusive museum goer. I love museums, right?

Suse Anderson:                Yeah.

Cinnamon:                          Now, my visits are different and the questions I’m asking. Finally got to go the Lower East Side Tenement Museum this year, and that has been a long time coming experience. It’s changed my life yet again. Just choosing my time differently as well, what I’m studying, what I’m privileging as a resource for decision making. Yeah. That’s definitely changed, but I do think and I will always believe museums have a place in American society and a global society. I do believe that their starving cycle of resources is our greatest threat, but I think that goes hand-in-hand with negligence around structural racism in all its forms, in all community interactions. Those two things together will make museums extinct if we don’t do something about it. So yes.

Suse Anderson:                I think that makes a lot of sense that the inputs you choose in your life, the things that you pay attention to start to shift, so it makes sense that the way you’re looking at the world is obviously shifting in response to the work that you’re doing.

If this is something people want to be doing in their own institutions, you’re the director and you’re coming at this from a place of power within your own institution. You’re able to connect the board to your staff, to your Advisory Council, whatever name and shape they become. For people who are not in that position, is there work that they can be doing in their own institutions that can actually bring some of these ideas from lower in the institution, from different spaces within the museum? What can people be doing from their own roles, whatever they are?

Cinnamon:                          That’s a tough place to be in. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, that I would say that the people we talk to the most as we’re learning are not leaders. That’s a real flaw. Leaders need to get together, and I’m still trying to figure that one out about how to make this kind of change happen. But if you find yourself middle management, entry level and incredibly frustrated about these structures, you’re going to leave the field. We’re hearing a lot about that at least in writing in personal experience right now. I don’t know if it has a lasting effect yet, but we’re hearing about it.

So how do you push up? How do you manage up? I think it starts within your department of course. I think it starts with personal work. Why are you pushing? Are you coming with other coded sets of understanding that are riddled with privilege or not?

Suse Anderson:                Probably yes.

Cinnamon:                          [crosstalk 00:46:06] What can you start doing to do the personal work, and by result, if you talk about it, you influence others, so you can begin almost like that drop in the water to create a ripple effect and that maybe if you grow into leadership for a department, your department works in a certain way, and you communicate in a certain way on the leadership team and it grows and it grows and it grows. As you constantly stay in the cycle of personal learning, it’s the only result in my opinion, and we’ve just started doing that to even add on to this personal learning. It’s growing for us at the Abbe. We are doing cultural competency assessments now, and we’re creating personal plans for our growth. Even little ole me was surprised by my result. I have a lot of work to do, and I’m in it to win it. I’m going to do this.

The board’s doing it. The staff’s doing it, and we’re going to look at disconnects between our results. We’re looking at it in aggregate, and then we’re creating a baseline of data to then move us into a training process we’re going to go through here this year and next around anti-racism training and servant leadership training. Those are the two areas we’re looking at, and then on the end of that, we’ll do these assessments again and look at change, so we’re trying to show how that personal work has to be there to make decolonization work. I don’t think they can exist separately, and it’s something I was seeing as a huge road bump if not a derailment if we didn’t look at that.

So that kind of personal work anybody can do wherever you sit. And if you find you can’t push or make an impact, then you need to go somewhere else you can. It’s going to be a tragedy for that museum left behind, but until leaders start doing it, until boards start to have that conversation, it’s going to be a tough road.

Suse Anderson:                Cinnamon, this has been so useful and enlightening and a little bit amazing. It’s actually so nice being in the same room with someone and having the conversation where they think. Not only do I get to hear the words, but I get to follow you on your journey as well as you think through these things, and that’s been a really lovely thing. If people want to get in contact with you, if they want to find out more about what the Abbe is doing, and if they want to work with you or work with the Abbe, how can they best get in contact with you?

Cinnamon:                          We love to hear from people, and they can always email me. Cinnamon, just like it’s supposed to be spelled in your cabinet, But if you go to our website,, you see links to the blog. The strategic plan is out there. All of our email addresses are for you to access. We want to hear from you. We’re okay with the spam that happens as a result. It’s worth it because we want to hear from people getting started. We want to hear from successes and failures. We’re willing to listen to your complications and point you in a different direction if we can. But also I like to just recognize that when you go onto that space, you can really see the Wabanaki people we work with. I’m always conscious of the fact that I’m sitting here as a white woman without Native people in the room. I always like to acknowledge that in our space together, that it’s not me with a solution. It’s all of us with a solution. You can see that when you go to our website.

Suse Anderson:                That’s really lovely. Cinnamon, thank you for being a guest on Museopunks.

Cinnamon:                          Thank you for having me.

Suse Anderson:                Thank you, Cinnamon, for sharing this important work and helping to grow what my understanding of what decolonization in museums looks like in practice. For those who want to know more, Cinnamon will be speaking at the American Alliance of Museums’ annual conference on Monday, May 7. Her presentation will build on three years of discussions in which practitioners have considered what decolonizing museum practice is and how it might inform museum work. If you can’t make it to the conference but would like to learn more about this work, Cinnamon has shared a full reading list of useful resources, which will be in the show notes for this episode. I suggest you also check out the Abbe Museum’s website and blog about their work.

Of course, I am also going to be at AAM this year. I am really excited to have a couple of opportunities to present. I’m going to be co-moderating a keynote session with the fabulous Kayleigh Bryant-Greenwell. We’re going to be talking with Donovan Livingston and Frank Waln about educational reform and equity in and out of museums.

I’m also really excited about a session I’m going to be on that’s moderated by Gretchen Jennings. It explores the possibilities and the obstacles in the practice of empathy at an institutional level. I often struggle with these notions of institutional empathy. I tend to feel that they’re against how institutions behave, and I’m really excited to dig into this topic and find out more about how we can actually codify empathy at an institutional level.

Museopunks is presented every month by the American Alliance of Museums. You can connect with me on Twitter @Museopunks, or check out the extended show notes at Of course, you can subscribe anytime at iTunes or Stitcher. I hope you have a fabulous month, and I look forward to catching up with you again soon. Ciao. (silence)


Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko

An image of Cinnamon Catlin-LegutkoWorking in museums for more than 20 years, Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko has been a museum director since 2001. Prior to joining the Abbe Museum as President & CEO in 2009, Cinnamon was the director of the General Lew Wallace Study & Museum where she led the organization to the National Medal for Museum Service in 2008. She is currently a board member of Maine Humanities Council and the American Alliance of Museums. She is the co-editor and chapter author for the Small Museum Toolkit, a six-book series, was published in 2012. Her most recent publication Museum Administration 2.0 was published in 2016.

Show Notes

Abbe Museum

Abbe Museum Strategic Plan

What is Decolonization?
We Must Decolonize Our Museums! – AAM Blog

We Must Decolonize Our Museums – TEDx Dirigo
The museum will not be decolonised

International Coalition of Sites of Conscience

San Diego Museum of Man, human remains policy

On safe spaces: Public Galleries Summit, Sydney, March 2018

Why Museum Professionals Need to Talk About Black Panther

Additional Resources/Publications

Compiled by Ben Garcia and Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, 2017.

Catlin-Legutko, Cinnamon. “History That Promotes Understanding in a Diverse Society.” In The Future of History: Historians, Historical Organizations, and the Prospects for the Field, edited by

Conrad Edick Wright and Katheryn P. Viens, 143-153. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2017.

Garcia, Ben. “For Whom the Human Remains.” In Remix: Changing Conversations in Museums of the Americas, edited by Selma Holo and Mari-Tere Alvarez, 72-75. Oakland: University of California Press, 2016.  

General Assembly. United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. September 2007. 107th plenary meeting,

Lehrer, Erica, Cynthia E. Milton, and Monica Eileen Patterson. Curating Difficult Knowledge: Violent Pasts in Public Places. London: Palgrave McMillan, 2011..

Lonetree, Amy. Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012.

Lonetree, Amy and Amanda J. Cobb. The National Museum of the American Indian: Critical Conversations. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008.

Miller, Susan A. “Native America Writes Back: The Origin of the Indigenous Paradigm in Historiography.” Wicazo Sa Review 23, no. 2 (2008): 9-28.

Mithlo, Nancy Marie. “No Word for Art in Our Language: Old Questions, New Paradigms.” Wicazo Sa Review 27, no. 1 (2012): 111-126.

—. “’Red Man’s Burden’: The Politics of Inclusion in Museum Settings.” American Indian Quarterly 28, no. 3 / 4, Special Issue: The Recovery of Indigenous Knowledge (Summer-Autumn, 2004): 743-763.

Newsom, Bonnie D. and Bissonette-Lewey, Jamie “Wabanaki Resistance and Healing: An Exploration of the Contemporary Role of an Eighteenth Century Bounty Proclamation in an Indigenous Decolonization Process.” Landscapes of Violence: Vol. 2: No. 1, Article 2 (2012): 1-9.  

Peers, Laura. Playing Ourselves: Interpreting Native Histories at Historic Reconstructions. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.

Phillips, Ruth B. Museum Pieces: Toward the Indigenization of Canadian Museums. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011.

Ranco, Darren and Julia Clark. “The Abbe Museum: Seeking a Collaborative Future through Decolonization.” In Interpreting Native American History and Culture at Museums and Historic Sites, edited by Raney Bench, 57-67. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

Redman, Samuel J. Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016.

Sleeper-Smith, Susan. Contesting Knowledge: Museums and Indigenous Perspectives. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. Decolonizing Methodologies. London: Zed Books, 2012.

Tuck, Eve and K. Wayne Yang. “Decolonization is not a Metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1, no. 1 (2012), 1-40.

Wilson, Waziyatawin Angela and Michael Yellow Bird. For Indigenous Eyes Only: A Decolonization Handbook. Santa Fe: School of American Research, 2005.

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Twitter: @museopunks

Episode 25: The Next Chapter

As former Museopunk Jeffrey Inscho leaves the museum world, we take a moment reflect on the factors that influence a decision to leave or join the museum profession. We also examine what outside organizations can gain from hiring museum professionals–and what museums can gain from those who have grown up professionally in complementary industries. Plus, we preview a soon-to-air podcast that focuses on the wildly circuitous ways through which people come to, and leave, museums.

Suse Anderson:              Good day and welcome to Museopunks, the podcast for the progressive museum. My name is Suse Anderson, and I am going to be one of your hosts for today’s episode, but in a joyous moment I am joined by two wonderful co-hosts Jason and Chad. Hello and welcome.

Jason Alderman:             Thank you. Hello!

Chad Weinard:                 Hi Suse.

Suse Anderson:                 I would love for each of you to introduce yourselves so that people will have a sense of who is going to be helping co-host this episode. Jason, why don’t you kick it off?

Jason Alderman:              Hi, I’m Jason Alderman, and I’m a creative technologist based in San Diego, California in the United States, and I’ve worked on many projects in Balboa Park with Balboa Park Online Collaborative.

Suse Anderson:                 Chad?

Chad Weinard:                  Yes, I am Chad Weinard. I am a museum technologist and a consultant based in Durham, North Carolina. I’m currently leading digital initiatives for the Williams College Museum of Art.

Suse Anderson:                 Thank you both so much. I have to say our decision to work together on this episode came about a little bit serendipitously. I knew as Jeffrey Inscho left Museopunks that I was really interested in bringing him in as a guest on the show to talk about what it means to leave the sector, why he was leaving the sector, and to think a little bit about his exit strategy.
I was thinking about people coming and going from the sector, and Chad, you happened to send me a DM in Twitter right at that moment. What do you want to talk about?

Chad Weinard:                Right, well Jason and I had this idea. It’s one that we batted around at MCN last year, and the week before I sent you that email, Suse, Jason hit me up on Slack and said, “That idea! Remember that idea we had? It was called Exit Interview? Let’s get that rolling.” I said, “Oh! Oh!”
I wasn’t sure that was good enough to get rolling, but…

Suse Anderson:                 Amazing.

Jason Alderman:              Do you want to launch into the pitch, Chad?

Chad Weinard:                  Yeah, we’d better launch into the pitch pretty quickly, or I’ll be exiting and interviewing.

Jason Alderman:              The premise of this is you know that one person in your museum who’s been around for ages who knows everything, or that young upstart, the steely-eyed one with all the ideas who’s made much-needed waves in the last year or two on staff?

Chad Weinard:                 What happens when they leave the museum? What happens when they move on to a different position entirely?

Jason Alderman:             Exit Interview is our new podcast to capture the wisdom of former museum professionals as they move on to other challenges. What do they wish they’d known when they started? What projects are they most proud of? What are the torches they want their successors to pick up? What can other professions learn from museums? And what are they up to and excited about now?

Chad Weinard:                 People come to the museum field and work in it and journey out of it in wildly circuitous ways, and we want to tell their stories. We hope you’ll join us.

Jason Alderman:              Find out more at or on Twitter @ExitInterviewMe

Suse Anderson:                 This is pretty amazing to think that you are having this whole discussion, this whole podcast coming up, all about people leaving the sector. I think it really taps into something that we’re seeing more and more in the sector, which is not just people leaving, and I think it’s a particular problem that I’m aware of in the technology space, although I’m sure it’s happening right around the sector, but also people being willing and in fact quite publicly talking about what it means to leave.

There was a recent post about the idea of “quit lit”, of people really being public about how and why they’re leaving. It feels like Exit Interview plays into this same idea.

Jason Alderman:             Exactly. We wanted to try to be a more silly and jovial HR department and try to capture some of the knowledge of people who are leaving the profession, but we wanted to do so in a lighthearted way and not be all doom and gloom.

Chad Weinard:                 I think it’s important to think about not just leaving the sector as something that’s sad or a loss, but in many cases, it should be celebrated. This is an opportunity as we see it for those that are interested to be able to look back and to think about their time in museums and maybe throw some ideas to those that are still in the sector.

Suse Anderson:                 One of the things that I think is really lovely, you’re talking about people’s circuitous routes in and around the museum sector and out of the sector. When I first came to the museum sector, one of the things that really intrigued me was that very few people, at least in the technology space, seemed to have a straight way into museums.

I think it’s different when we’re talking about an area like collections management, where there are some pretty defined paths as to how people get there, but technology is not that space. How did you each end up in the museum world?

Chad Weinard:                  Goodness, I got into the museum world through art history, of all things. I remember in grad school I was in art history school and doing technology stuff on the side, some web development back when Flash was a thing. Remember that? That was something I was interested in. I never quite knew which would be a hobby and which might be a job.

When museums started getting interested in technology and museum technology became a thing, it was kind of the best of both worlds for me. I really got my start through the curatorial door. Started doing digital things and moved more in that direction.

Suse Anderson:                 I think from every project I’ve ever seen that you’ve worked on, I feel that you retain that curatorial sense, which is also a really lovely eye to be bringing with you into that space.

Chad Weinard:                 Right, it’s something I’m super passionate about. I think knowing the content and building things that work along with that content, even when we’re talking about interfaces, even when we’re talking about visitor experience, to build something that matches that is where the magic is.

Suse Anderson:                 Jason, we were talking the other day off-air about your somewhat interesting, I think, journey to museums. Can you share a little bit about how you ended up here?

Jason Alderman:               I won’t get into too many of the details, but this is probably the third or fourth profession that I’m on. I started out in the military for several years and then worked at an educational software company making games for preschoolers, and then worked into consultancies making enterprise software for big corporations, Fortune 500 companies. It was at the end of probably three or four years at a consultancy in San Diego that I went to museum camp at the Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz, Nina Simon’s museum.

Suse Anderson:                 Fantastic.

Jason Alderman:              It was fantastic. You slept overnight in the museum and worked on several activities. It was ocean swimming. It was the most unorthodox, amazing conference that I had been to at the time, so I was sold and wanted to try to get into museum exhibit design.

I found out about the Balboa Park Online Collaborative and saw on Twitter that Chad had just accepted the job as the director of digital media there. I asked him if I could buy him a coffee and find out how to break into the world of museums. That coffee led to a breakfast with his boss, and that led to a consulting job offer and everything went from there.

Suse Anderson:                  Chad, that is so generous of you and yet not in any way, I think, surprising from this part of the museum world or, in fact, I think the museum world in general. I think we’re an incredibly generous sector.

Chad Weinard:                    Yeah, that was probably the most profitable coffee that I had that summer, by far.

Jason Alderman:                But you would have gotten so much more sleep if you hadn’t accepted that coffee.

Chad Weinard:                   Ahh, that’s probably true, but it would have been much less fun.

Suse Anderson:                 That is fantastic. Jason and Chad, it is fabulous to have you both here on Museopunks. Chad, you are only with us for the intro and outro. I am afraid that with my nascent audio editing skills I didn’t think juggling four audio tracks was quite the way to do this, so I have kicked you off for the next part of the show, which is our fabulous interviews.

We are going to be talking to Jeffrey Inscho, my recent co-host for Museopunks and longtime friend, as well as to Ros Lawler, who is at Tate and who came to museums actually later in her career. In my case, I’m not just focusing on the exit interview. With this interview, we’re thinking about the flows that people bring to and from museums, how people end up here, but what they take from this career.
I am really excited to get into both of these interviews, so Jason, I will speak with you in a second and Chad, we will see you after the jump.

Until recently, Jeffrey Inscho was a museopunk and cultural hacktivist based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His work played thoughtfully at the intersection of digital culture, mindfulness, strategic subversion, and DIY. His most recent position in the museum sector was running The Studio, a nexus of design, development, and work flow at Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh. He previously held positions at the Andy Warhol Museum, Carnegie Mellon University, and the Mattress Factory. Jeffrey, welcome to Museopunks.

Jeffrey Inscho:                 Hey! First-time caller. How’s it going?
Suse Anderson                 Things are great. It is so wonderful to have you as a guest for this episode. I had wondered if we were going to make it happen, and I’m so glad we could.

Jeffrey Inscho:                  It’s awesome to hear your voice again and also your co-host’s voice for this episode.

Suse Anderson:                 Huzzah! Jason, you want to say hi?

Jason Alderman:               Hi Jeffrey.

Suse Anderson:                 Jeffrey, in late December, you announced just via a very quiet post on Medium that you would be leaving the museum sector to take up a position in the outside world. Before we talk a little bit about your decision to leave museums, can you tell me about your new role?

Jeffrey Inscho:                   Yeah, sure. First week of January I started a new adventure in the private sector. I went corporate, as they say. I am now sitting on the digital commerce team at a large Pittsburgh-based retailer. The d-com team, my team, we oversee all of the customer-facing digital channels for the company like the website, mobile apps, any type of physical space engagement. It may surprise some people, I think, this change, but it’s definitely not that dissimilar to the work I was doing at museums, surprisingly enough.

It’s a great company. I don’t want to get too into the details of the specifics of the company just because it’s a new environment, but anybody who knows Pittsburgh knows the company. It’s one of the bigger brands here in town. 400 locations. $9 billion annual revenue. It’s exciting for me, so yeah, that’s what I’m doing now.

Jason Alderman:                Jeffrey, what excites you the most about your new position and the opportunities that you have there?

Jeffrey Inscho:                    The thing that excites me most really is getting back into the world of strategic marketing and strategic engagement. That’s the world I came from and cut my teeth in. I’ve always considered myself a technologist, I guess, but technologist was always secondary to the work of connecting with people, and technology was usually just one of the media that I found myself working in to connect people with ideas or people with objects, or in this case, people with products in my new position.

The company that I’m working for now, it’s interesting. It’s a legacy institution. It’s been around for a long time. Founded prior to the internet and is trying to figure out how to succeed in a world where we have things like Amazon, and particularly Amazon Go. I don’t know if you’re familiar with what Amazon Go is, but it’s their internet-connected store that is monitored with sensors and people can just walk in and scan a phone and walk out with their stuff and it automatically bills them.

It’s a really interesting opportunity for me to think about meaningful, compelling engagements at the scale of that. It’s pretty exciting.

Suse Anderson:                 Jeffrey, I think it was really interesting that you mentioned that this is almost a return to the continuum of where your career was earlier. You’ve been so visible as a contributor to the discourse around museums and technology, not just in your job but in things like Museopunks and in your writing. I was wondering how this might impact your sense of identity, but it sounds like this actually feels really like it’s returning to something core for you.

Jeffrey Inscho:                   Yeah, I would definitely describe it that way. I think it feels a little bit like coming home, in a way. Not that museums weren’t home to me for ten years, but definitely as I was considering making this move, it wasn’t an overnight decision. I had been thinking about making a change for more than a year, really, and considering it thoughtfully. Taking into account this professional identity that had built up over the years, whether it be Museopunks or Twitter or whatever, how I was going to deal with that and would I be okay walking away from that?

I actually used this change as I’d been considering withdrawing from the Internet for a little bit, and I used it as an opportunity to disassociate from Twitter and social media and just bring it back to basics for me.

Suse Anderson:                 I know! I noticed that you archived or deleted all of your tweets, that your website stands vacant. You’ve become not just less visible, but you’ve almost gone through a process of erasure of so much of what you’ve done. Is it about a more deliberate engagement with technology, which is something that we’ve spoken about before, about your sense of mindfulness, or is it about managing and changing that online brand to something much more closely aligned with your new role?

Jeffrey Inscho:                  No, and honestly I don’t think I’m intending to create the Corporate Jeff brand. It’s definitely rooted in mindfulness. It’s rooted in focus, focusing on things that are in front of me, things that are in my presence at the moment. Honestly, the identity that did build over the years … It’s going to sound totally weird, but it was not an intentional strategic thing. It just kind of happened, and I felt a lot of pressure once it was there to maintain it, so it’s refreshing not to have that.

Jason Alderman:              You’ve spent a lot of time thinking about museums and cultural organizations over the past several years. What are things that you think that the outside world could learn or should adopt from museums and cultural institutions that you are maybe bringing with you as you go to your new role?

Jeffrey Inscho:                  Great question. I think the museum world offers a lot to the outside world. For example, in this new role of mine, it’s a big company. It’s a complex organization. It’s a diverse set of stakeholders, depending on what project I’m dealing with at the time. I don’t think there is a more complex network of stakeholders than museums. Think of the mustech community. People listening to this podcast, regularly they find themselves in the Bermuda Triangle of curator, educator, and technologist. There’s really nothing more complex than that, so while yeah, sure, this new role I have a lot of complex relationships to deal with to realize projects and have them emerge into the real world. Museums do offer that. If you’re good at navigating the environment or networks that exist in museums, it’s going to translate elsewhere.

I also think one of the reasons why I think my new employer liked me for the position when I really had no retail experience other than agency side of things prior to my time in museums was that companies are starting to value the fusion of the digital with the physical, and museums play in that space. Museums play elegantly in that space, and a lot of the work that I dealt with over the years in museums played in that space. The idea that we can fuse the digital with the physical in interesting ways is something from museums I think really translates to anything, really. That’s just the world we live in now.

Suse Anderson:                 Yeah, I think that’s a really good point. One of the things that I was thinking about is what would attract people in outside organizations to museum professionals, and that melding of online and on-site, of thinking about experiential aspects of the world and work, I think, is a really big part of that.

Jeffrey Inscho:                  Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Suse Anderson:                 What do you wish you had done in the sector that you didn’t have a chance to do, or is there projects that need to get done that no one’s working on that we really should be?

Jeffrey Inscho:                  Yeah, I think the projects that should happen and I feel really need to happen are the collaborative projects across institutions. Museums are staff strapped and resource strapped and to the extent that they can work together, figure out the standards, and build something bigger than themselves, it would be remarkable if projects like that could happen. I know it’s hard. I know it’s on the front end of getting those projects started and maintaining those projects and keeping them going is not a trivial thing, but I think that’s really where the larger impact can be realized.

Jason Alderman:              I know that in your work at The Studio, you did a lot of work that tied together the many institutions in Pittsburgh, even within the Carnegie Museum network. Of those projects, what are the projects that you were the most proud of, and also what might have been some projects that you feel were the most fun to work on but might have been overlooked by people?

Jeffrey Inscho:                  Cool. I love a question like that, Jason, because it allows me to reflect on the body of work. I think probably the project that I would be most proud of would be the light clock at Carnegie Museum of Art. This was a project that The Studio worked on for about nine months, and it ran all of 2017. It was a huge challenge. It was the first physical object that we designed and fabricated. It was a really complex installation. Some cutting-edge, never-before-seen software came out of it, and it’s something that I’ll definitely be proud of for a long time.

I think a project that might have been overlooked or a little bit hidden was the last project that I delivered for The Studio. The rest of the team, obviously, is still working really hard there at The Studio. We built a cabinet of curiosity and put it in the Pittsburgh Airport, and we installed that right before Christmas of last year. You can only see it if you’re traveling because it’s behind security, but it fused the collections of all four museums. We laser scanned museum objects and printed them out in bronze and had them mounted on the cabinet. It’s really an elegant thing, so if you’re traveling through Pittsburgh, definitely check it out. It’s a project that I’m proud of but very few people have seen.

Suse Anderson:                 It sounds fantastic. It actually makes me feel like I need to fly into Pittsburgh next time I come visiting as opposed to driving up there. It does sound like a really beautiful object and beautiful creation.

Jeffrey Inscho:                  Yeah, the documentation isn’t even online for it. It’s one of those things where you just kind of have to know about it, I guess.

Suse Anderson:                 That’s fantastic. A couple of quick questions: One of the things we haven’t spoken about yet is why now was the right time for you to transition I know that if you’re thinking about sector change, I’m sure there’s many, many things, many factors that go into something like this. What was it about this moment that made it the right time to move?

Jeffrey Inscho:                   There were a ton of factors that came into this decision. Like I said earlier, I’d been thinking about it and considering it and contemplating it for a long time. Yeah, it’s definitely a big risk professionally, one that I definitely had to weigh and consider. With respect to timing, it was a combination of a couple things. It was certainly a combination of the opportunity. It was an opportunity I felt was a good fit for me professionally and personally. The company is very family-friendly, very progressive, has a culture that’s rooted in positivity, so that all played into the factor of making a change.

Then also on the previous employer side of things, there were some leadership changes that were happening and some of the leadership that was really supportive of the work that I was doing was moving on. It’s one of those things where the opportunity was there, but then also your advocate from above is moving on. I wasn’t really sure of how the work was going to be supported in the future, so it was the right time.

Jason Alderman:                 Obviously, this is a big decision that you had to think about for a while and, as you said, there was the opportunity and then a confluence of factors at your home institution. I’ve got a few questions around that: What sort of reactions have you gotten by leaving, what advice would you give to those people who might be considering leaving the museum field, and any advice to those people who are staying in the museum field, maybe a little bit of a pep talk?

This is not getting too difficult.

Jeffrey Inscho:                 No, no. I want to be really clear that I don’t want this to be seen as a referendum on the museum sector. If an opportunity at a museum in Pittsburgh were to present itself, I probably would have stayed in the sector, but the decision to move out of the sector was rooted in the fact that my family is tied to Pittsburgh. We love Pittsburgh, and so personal factors trumped the professional sector factors, if that makes sense.

If I were to stay in the museum sector, it would have necessitated a move, or maybe a move into consulting, which is not something that I really wanted to do. I definitely want that to be clear: I still love museums. I still love the people who work in museums and the network that exists. I think professionally the mustech and museopunk network that’s out there is one of the most vibrant professional communities that exists.

As far as someone who is thinking of leaving the sector, I would definitely recommend they take their time with that decision and weigh all the factors, both professionally, personally, and make sure that what they’re moving into is the right fit for them to the best ability that they can. We don’t have crystal balls, but you can definitely map out the things that are important to you and realize if the shift meets those needs.

Suse Anderson:                 Yeah, Jeffrey, I think it’s really interesting and important that you mention both personal factors but also location and how important it is. It was something I really struggled with back home in Australia and in Newcastle. I lived in a city of 125,000 people and I think its actual, official jobs in museums and cultural institutions, there were around 60 of them. The possibility of changing and progressing in a museum career is such an easier thing if moving is on the cards, and if it not, it can be really challenging for growth and to be in a place where you’re really stretching yourself.

If you can’t be changing and having that flexibility … People in big cities, there are still limited positions but at least there is some opportunity, whereas if you are in a small city or a small town, your capacity to move and change is very limited.

Jeffrey Inscho:                  Yeah, definitely, and that plays into some of the discussions around equity and those sorts of things. It’s something, again, as I was considering a move, Jill and I were talking about it, whether or not we would be interested in a move. Taking the kids out of school that they love and putting them somewhere new. We came to the decision, and it was an easy decision for us. We love it here. Anyone who came to MCN last year knows how awesome the city is, and that trumped any business decision on my end of things.

Suse Anderson:                 I think that’s fantastic, and it is a factor I understand all too well. My ability to move to Baltimore was really a once-in-a-lifetime moment in my life where, if circumstances hadn’t laid out exactly as they did at that time, I don’t think I would have had that opportunity. You have to time it so well.

Jeffrey, just before we wrap up, one of the things I was just wondering: Every time we finish this podcast, we ask people how listeners can get in contact with them. You are so deliberately cutting down your online connections, I didn’t know whether that was still an option, and if it’s not, how does that feel? Does that feel like a loss? Is there a sense of uncertainty about being so much less connected than you were?

Jeffrey Inscho:                  People can still get in touch with me. There is a reason why the Twitter account is not deleted and it’s just empty. If somebody wants to shoot a DM, they can do that. I’ll probably log in in a month or two and just make sure nothing pressing is coming up.

Again, it’s definitely an intentional thing on my part, and it’s allowing some mental space to really focus on things that are meaningful and important at this point in my life, both professionally and personally. If somebody wants to get in touch, I would recommend just shooting a DM on Twitter, or if you have my email that’s probably the best way. Email or text.

Jason Alderman:             Jeffrey, thank you so much for being on Museopunks. This was really a wonderful interview, and it was great to get some parting insight as you head on to other opportunities.

Jeffrey Inscho:                  Thank you both. Museopunks always held a really warm spot in my heart, and I’m so glad that Suse, you’re carrying it forward. I will remain a fan, the biggest fan, and a regular listener.

Suse Anderson:                 That is fantastic, Jeffrey. It has been wonderful working with you over the last several years, and I look forward to keeping an eye on what you are doing into the future. In the meantime, I think that’s a wrap on this interview.

Jason Alderman:               In this segment today we have Ros Lawler with us. She’s an experienced digital professional with a track record of successfully leading and implementing digital strategy for world-leading commercial and non-profit organizations. Her enviable employment record includes Channel 4, Ministry of Sound, Radio One, and Random House.

From the arrival of Napster in the music industry to on-demand viewing in broadcast, from the e-book revolution to changing funding models in charity, her work is focused on helping organizations adapt to seismic industry shifts and changing consumer behavior. Now the digital director for the Tate, Ros is excited to bring her experience to the museum and art worlds.

Thank you for being on our show today.

Ros Lawler:                  Thank you for inviting me.

Jason Alderman:        You’re currently the digital director at the Tate. Can you tell us a little bit more about that position and what your current role involves?

Ros Lawler:                  Sure. I’ve been there for four years, and I basically oversee all our online platforms. That’s Tate’s main website, where you will find 150,000 digitized artworks, where you’ll find all the information about how to visit and lots of content about our arts and artworks. Includes the e-commerce platform, which has recently been relaunched. Includes things like our app. It includes fantastic things like our in-gallery experiences, and I also have a wonderful content team who do loads of great writing and interactives and make fantastic videos.

Suse Anderson:                  Ros, that is fantastic. Can you just give me a little bit of a sense of the size and the scope of the digital team at Tate? What is the structure of the digital division? I think it’s useful to get a sense of different organizations in different museums and what that structure looks like.

Ros Lawler:                  Yeah, absolutely people do cut it very different ways. I have at last count 24 people in the team, plus a bunch of freelancers who kind of flex with. Within that, there’s a small project team. I have a head of projects and development, and she manages two project managers, a UX developer, and an analyst. We have a very small in-house dev team of two people. We’re going to go up to three soon. I have a content team who is slightly bigger, so that includes producers, assistant producers, and a couple of film specialists.

We also have a team that are fully funded by Bloomberg at the moment. Bloomberg are one of our biggest sponsors, and they focus on the Bloomberg content. And I have a small e-commerce team.

When I joined Tate, actually, this was quite disparate. The digital was split across three different teams, so over the past four years we’ve really brought that together and made it knit together with one team.

Jason Alderman:        Thank you. That’s such a large team that works with so many different aspects of the museum. Are there any times that you feel that your experience outside museums has given you unique perspective on problems that you’ve faced with your museum?

Ros Lawler:                  Essentially, the jobs that I’ve done previously have been very similar to this of running large websites, large online platforms, which both deliver a lot of content and also have a commercial function. For example in publishing, we have lots of content about authors and books, but also it was a platform for selling e-books or referring on to other commercial websites. Similarly in the music industry, we worked on content-heavy sites. Lots of great videos about music, but also there was a commercial push there as well.

A lot of that experience comes to bear here as well. One of the big projects that we’ve worked on over the past four years which is really coming to fruition now is to pull the commercial and the content together into an experience which is really joined up and doesn’t jar. It’s just taking people on really meaningful user journeys from, say, their favorite artwork through to deeper research or content about that artwork, then perhaps on to a commercial opportunity to buy a ticket or a related product. Really trying to make that into a seamless journey for whichever route people come into our content or products.

Suse Anderson:                  That’s fascinating. I’m really interested to hear that there’s been such a deliberate linking of the commercial and the educational aspects of the Tate’s content. Was that a driving motivator behind you coming to work at Tate or behind you even moving from the e-commerce division of Tate, which I know you were the head of, and moving into the digital division more broadly?

Ros Lawler:                         My motivators for joining was really quite basic. One, that I really love Tate. I’ve been a massive fan since I was about 15. I was in another job and I wasn’t thinking of leaving anywhere, and a recruitment friend of mine said, “Ros, there’s a job at Tate and you should really go for it.” I was kind of awestruck that I could have a possibility of working at Tate and came in, as you said, to what was a pure e-commerce role. It hadn’t been on my map that I might do that, but I met the people at Tate and we got on very well, and I was absolutely delighted to join.

It was nice the first year I was there, I was able to focus on actually what had been quite a small business online and had been a sort of satellite business, floating around the outside of Tate. I really spent the first year trying to think how I could plug that more into the rest of Tate, make it a more joined-up experience, and was able to really focus on what the project software was there.

When you go into a museum and you go in the shop, the shop makes sense because it’s connected to the experience that you’re there, whether that’s an exhibition or a collection that you’ve seen, whereas if you just stumble across it online, sometimes it doesn’t really make much sense. We really focused on developing two things within the online shop offer: One was the print offer, because that makes sense that you go along to a Tate website and it’s got great prints, and gifting, because we’ve got fantastic things that make great gifts.

I just got that strategy up and running, got a team set up there, and then there was some movement with my ex-colleagues from Tate. A couple of people left, and it just brought about this opportunity to put in a digital director role, which could pull together what had been slightly disparate teams, content team and a digital team and the e-commerce team. I was right place, right time and was lucky enough to get into that job and really put it together. That’s my mini-history at Tate.

Suse Anderson:                 That’s great. Jeffrey Inscho, who is the former co-host of this podcast and who is the other guest on today’s show, recently left museums to take up a position with a retailer. I think you’ve basically flipped that, coming from an external position in marketing in e-commerce to the museum world. Are museums thinking about e-commerce differently from the way external organizations are?

I think you’re starting to talk about connecting the full range of products here, the educational, but is this something that museums are … Are museums new to thinking about their commercial relationships online in this way and thinking about that connection in this way, or are they actually dealing with e-commerce differently from what’s happening outside the sector?

Ros Lawler:                         I think there is an aspiration to be like e-commerce businesses outside of the sector, but most of the museums I know are struggling with a really similar problem. That is the IT infrastructure and legacy platforms that they’ve got. One thing that I learned on joining the museum sector is that there is no e-commerce platform which is easy to use and readily available that really sells well across the range of membership, tickets, and products.

Most museums now are in a situation where they’ll perhaps have one platform which sells their membership and ticket, and another one which sells their online products. They’re two disparate platforms, which is what we had at Tate. We’ve just got to the end of a project where we’ve brought them together onto one platform, which may not be too obvious to the customer, but to us that’s a really big deal.

For the first time, we’ve got a platform which sells e-tickets, you can buy your membership, and you can also buy a t-shirt at the same time. Everybody I talk to in the space is dealing with this same problem: With limited resources, how do you pull together these slightly antiquated legacy systems that we’ve got?

Unfortunately, it would be great if we could invent a system that everybody could use and save everybody’s time and resources so we can just get on with delivering a great customer experience, but everybody’s setup is slightly different. Everybody’s trying to patch together slightly different systems, which means we’re all working really hard to try and achieve the same thing, I think.
Jason Alderman:                  It really would be wonderful if there were some kind of one-size-fits-all solution, as you’re describing.
Ros Lawler: Wouldn’t it? Yeah.

Jason Alderman:                  Have you experienced any culture shock when you joined the museum sector? You’re working in very similar areas and working with e-commerce, but what was the biggest surprise that you had about working with museums?

Ros Lawler:                           Actually, one of the surprises was the similarity. Having worked in different creative industries before, there is the similar emotional and different relationships. You have your creatives, your artists and your curators in this. It compares quite well to the music industry, where you have your musicians. You have this creative project that you’re trying to treat in the best way possible and make it accessible to the biggest audience possible, so some of those things I thought were very similar.

One thing that really surprised me about the museum industry, having come from industries that are essentially hit industries, so you’ve got publishing, you’ve got music. They live off their hits and then they have a back catalog that makes them money the rest of the time.

Discovering that, essentially, a lot of the museum industry is a hit industry. Everything pivots around the big exhibitions. When there’s a big exhibition, everybody’s in a great mood and you make all the money off there and you sell your tickets and you upsell your membership and you sell all the catalogs. It actually has a lot of similarities and dealing with a lot of the similar issues. That’s great we had a really big exhibition that did really well, but how do we make those dips in between exhibitions shallower? How can we build up our business so that we’re not entirely reliant on these exhibitions, which in music and publishing, you do with your back catalog? It’s kind of like what’s the equivalent of a back catalog in the museum industry?

Suse Anderson:                 It’s funny that you come from the music industry as well. I dabbled. I came from the music industry to museums and it was, again, around the time that the internet was starting to show that there were different business models. That was actually what directly led me to the museum world. I know of other people who are working in the museum technology space who had a similar background. I think it’s interesting that there’s an analogue between these two spaces.

One of the things that I’ve heard a number of digital directors speak about is the challenges of hiring technologists into museums and particularly later in their careers because so many of those skills are directly transferrable, in fact, between sectors. You are competing with people who are working in multiple other creative sectors, as well as commercial spaces, and a lot of those other sectors can pay a lot higher than museums pay. Have you faced this challenge, and if so, how has it shaped your team and your hiring choices?

Ros Lawler:                          Suse, you’re absolutely right that hiring technologists is really difficult in this sector because we just don’t compete on salary. With the other areas of the team, for example in the content team, we do attract people because people who are interested in making content about art know that we’ve got great content for them to work with. There is a big attraction there, whereas that’s not usually the reason that people go into being a developer. There are other motivations there, so it’s hard to find people who will work for our salaries, and we have spent a painful amount of money on contractors. There are things I would much rather spend that money on, but sometimes needs must because it does cause a real bottleneck in our team.

We can produce a lot more work than we can actually get alive sometimes, so we are lucky that we do have a developer who is also a brilliant art historian and a writer. We shall try and keep hold of Harris for as long as we can, and then get the right recruitment level for people to come in and work in the team. Perhaps on their first or second job, try and give them really interesting things to work on that will give other motivations other than financial. That is difficult for us.

We also try and support that with agencies as well so that we can sometimes flex out and get external support, which helps reduce that bottleneck within the team.

Jason Alderman:               When do you decide to go for agencies or contractors versus when do you decide that you absolutely need to hire somebody in house for something?

Ros Lawler:                         That would depend on the project, and it would depend on the budget. When we have sponsored projects we’re able to do that. A good example is Tate’s app. We were able to go externally with that. Then, also, when there’s a very hard deadline. A couple of years ago we had a very hard deadline of a new building opening. We needed a new website. We needed lots of things done. There was not much flexibility, so at that point as well we went externally. It’s just choosing those moments.

Also, it’s really great to have that knowledge in house. One of the other things that we have done over the past couple of years going back to that IT stack we were talking about is really simplifying the setup so actually we’ve got slightly less technical requirement in house to be able to work on the platforms that we’ve got. Just kind of scaling that back a little bit and making it simpler to use.

Suse Anderson:                 I think that’s really interesting, this observation that you are starting to simplify the technology stack. I’m sure that has implications, then, on who you’re hiring as well and the sorts of skills you’re trying to bring in. I also thought it was interesting, you observed you often get people on their first or second job, certainly in the developer stage. You’re not the first person I’ve heard say that. I’ve actually heard a number of people around the sector mention that getting young, keen technologists is a great thing that happens early in their career and then they tend to move on. What are the skills or the traits we should be hiring for, both early in people’s careers but also as they develop? What should we be hiring for that’s important in museums?

Ros Lawler:                      That’s a really good question. Willingness to learn and be interested and be curious is the underlying value that I think we need. People who are prepared to be flexible. We’ve recently hired a developer and we’re working on different technologies to that which he’s been trained in and developed in. Actually, that’s a good learning for him. He’s broadening his skills and at the same time while certainly being useful for us. That’s a really good entry there.

Within the team, we try and get a mixture of people with art knowledge, obviously, because that’s all about our credibility and being able to make sure that the things that we’re doing are correct and really tied in and joined up with the rest of Tate. Then balance that out with people from a non-arts background. People from a more pure-digital background, who can bring in some of those skills like user-centered design, like product development. It’s really getting that nice blend between museum and arts industry and technology industries and really marrying those together.

Jason Alderman:               The museum field really does feel like a great melting pot of all those different disciplines that help people. I don’t mean to be doom-and-gloom here, but are we doomed in the museum sector to have high turnover and be training people from other sectors?

Ros Lawler:                           I don’t know that I’d say doomed, but that is … It’s how you manage it, isn’t it? If you’re a project manager in your mid-30s, you’re quite likely, whatever sector you’re in, to move jobs quite frequently. A two- to three-year stint in a job is not unusual. I think what we need to be really good at is hiring effectively, so let’s go out and find the right people, getting them up and running really quickly, things like induction and getting them established and getting them to be productive really quickly, and then making the most of their time while they’re there and accepting that, yes, people are going to turn over. Actually, that’s just a part of the rhythm of employment now, I think, not just within the museum sector, but within other sectors. I’ve had this in other areas as well. You live in London, there are a lot of great jobs around.

Suse Anderson:                  Yeah, it’s interesting. I think in other parts of the museum, say with collections management, people come in knowing that that’s what they want to do. They want to work with, often, a specific collection or with collections in general, so then it’s really a question of staying within museums and finding the right position or the right collection and working within that parameter. The technology space within museums is certainly not like that. How important, then, is it to have a mix of museum experts and non-museum people, and what kind of training do we need to then offer? How essential is it that someone who’s not from a museum world initially actually comes in and quickly understands what the museum sector is all about? Are there particular things that you want people to come in understanding, or is that not essential?

Ros Lawler:                   I don’t know if anybody’s quickly understood the museum sector. I certainly haven’t. I keep learning as I go along. I think the important thing to establish is a meaningful and creative dialogue between your digital team and perhaps your curatorial or your collection care team of actually how they can interface and work together, which has been done very successfully. Our artwork digitization process, for example, starts off from acquisition and goes through collection care and magically ends up on the website. Our project team and our content team work very creatively with curatorial. It’s actually just hooking up those conversations and seeing, really, what people can learn from one side to the other.

I had a really interesting conversation with somebody the other day where they were saying, “UX skills and understanding creating experiences is all very project and very digital led, and it’s very new to museums.” I said, “Well it’s not, is it, because that’s what curators do. They create experiences.” People are actually thinking about very similar things and doing very similar things, but using very different language. I think there’s a lot you can learn between each side on how you view experiences and how you create them. Even though we’re using slightly different language, we are actually doing a very similar thing.

Jason Alderman:             Understanding the language between the two fields, industry and museums, is really important, at least from what we’ve seen as well. Do you have any specific advice like that for listeners who might be wanting to make the leap from another industry to the world of museums?

Ros Lawler:                       Do I have any advice? That’s a really good question. Let me think about that for a moment.

Jason Alderman:              Didn’t mean to put you on the spot.

Ros Lawler:                        No, that’s okay. It’s a good question. I guess my advice would be do your research. Go and talk to people. Find out what the opportunities are. Like I said, there are a lot of similarities. I think one of the motivators and one of the great things that I love about it is that you really get to work both online and in the most amazing spaces. That for me is the really motivating thing. There are not many jobs where I think you get to run a fantastic website full of amazing art, but then people open up really incredible spaces for you to do the most inventive things in.

At the moment, we’ve got this incredible VR experience in the middle of a Modigliani exhibition. There are not many places where you really get to work with your audiences, both online and offline. My advice to people is go out and see what’s happening in the museums. There are some really incredible things. Talk to people. Find out how you might get involved. Go and experience and absorb it, I think.
Suse Anderson: That is a beautiful, positive note on which to end this discussion, which is really all about change and moving in and out of sectors. If people would like to get in contact with you, if they’d to find you online, what’s the best way for them to do so?

Ros Lawler:                         Twitter, @RosLawler. You can send me a message on there.

Suse Anderson:                 That is great, and we will also put a link to that in the show notes. Ros, thank you so much for coming and sharing your wisdom and your story with us. It’s fascinating to hear both about what you’ve brought from outside the sector to the museum world, but also to hear about the work you have been working on since joining Tate.

Ros Lawler:                        Thank you, it’s been a pleasure.

Suse Anderson: Thank you so much to Jeffrey and Ros for joining us on Museopunks today and sharing your insight into progressive museum practice in all its forms. If you want to connect with Jeffrey, you can do so @jinscho on Twitter, and you can reach out to Ros @roslawler. Thank you also to my new co-hosts, Jason Alderman and Chad Weinard for taking on the grand experiment that is becoming co-hosts for this new iteration of Museopunks.

I can’t wait for the first episode of Exit Interview, which people can find more about at, or on Twitter @exitinterviewme. We didn’t cover one question, though, about this podcast. Jason, Chad: When is it going to drop?

Jason Alderman:               Later this year.

Chad Weinard:                  Good answer, good answer.

Suse Anderson:                 Okay. Once you are ready to make this episode public, I think we will publicize it here on Museopunks, and we will also share a link out on our Twitter feed. Keep an eye out on Museopunks’ Twitter feed as well.
Museopunks is presented every month by the American Alliance of Museums. You can connect with me on Twitter @museopunks, or check out the extended show notes at Of course, you can subscribe any time at iTunes or Stitcher.
Jason, Chad, final words? Final thoughts?

Jason Alderman:             Thank you so much, Suse. This has really been an honor and a swell time.

Chad Weinard:                 Thanks, Suse. This has been fantastic.

Suse Anderson:                 It has been so fun to speak to you both. Thank goodness for serendipity.


Jason Alderman
Jason is a creative technologist based in San Diego, California, USA. He’s worked on many projects in Balboa Park with Balboa Park Online Collaborative.



Chad Weinard
Chad is a museum technologist and consultant based in Durham, NC. He’s currently leading digital initiatives for the Williams College Museum of Art.




Jeffrey Inscho
Until recently, Jeffrey Inscho was a museopunk and cultural hacktivist based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. His work played thoughtfully at the intersection of digital culture, mindfulness, strategic subversion and DIY. His most recent position in the museum sector was running the Studio, a nexus of design, development and workflow at Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh. He previously held positions at The Andy Warhol Museum, Carnegie Mellon University and the Mattress Factory.

Ros Lawler
Ros is an experienced digital professional with a track record of successfully leading and implementing digital strategy for world leading commercial and non-profit organisations. Her enviable employment record includes Channel 4, Ministry of Sound, Radio 1 and Random House. From the arrival of napster in the music industry to on-demand viewing in broadcast, from the ebook revolution to changing funding models in charity, her work has focused on helping organisations adapt to seismic industry shifts and changing consumer behaviour.

Now Digital Director for Tate, Ros is excited to bring her experience to the museum and art worlds. Connect with her on Twitter.

Show Notes

Dear Friends, Colleagues, Collaborators and Co-Conspirators:
Labor of Love: Revaluing Museum Work
Leaving the Museum Field
Exit Interview
Curious Collections
The Light Clock

Never miss an episode! Subscribe to Museopunks on iTunes or Stitcher

Museopunks is presented by the American Alliance of Museums.
Graphic Design of the Museopunks logo is by Selena Robleto.
Twitter: @museopunks

Episode 24: Institutional Bravery

Increasingly, it feels like progressive museum practice is also political museum practice. So what does it mean for a museum to take a stand, and put social just at the heart of its work? In this episode, Suse talks with David Fleming, Director of National Museums Liverpool (NML) and President of the UK Museums Association, about social impact of museum work, advocacy as a strategic objective, and what it means for a museum service to be openly political.

Plus, news about some big changes to the podcast! And quiet snorts from a new baby softly echoing throughout the interview.

Suse Anderson:                    Good day, and welcome to Museopunks, the podcast for the progressive museum. My name is Suse Anderson and I’m going to be your host today as we dive into the subject of institutional bravery. We’re going to be focusing on the National Museums Liverpool whose mission is to be the world’s leading example of an inclusive museum service. Lofty goals indeed, but before we go any further, I should say a couple of notes about some changes that the last several months have brought. Our last episode went online in the mid-September 2017, and focused on the gendered museum. That investigation was in part inspired by a big change that I was about to go through in becoming a mother. Something that happened less than a week after we posted the episode, but it’s not the only big change that’s happened to the Museopunks family in recent months.

Jeffrey Inscho, my dear friend and collaborator and co-host of this show, has taken a new job. It’s one outside of museums and away from the cultural technology space. In doing so, Jeffrey is moving onto the next chapter of his professional life, which includes stepping away from Museopunks. I’m sure that that doesn’t mean it’s the last we’re going to hear from Jeffrey. In fact, I already have plans to bring him on as a guest in a future episode, but it does mean that we will have few changes to the shape, feel, and format of the podcast moving forward.

In the next few months, I’m hoping to invite a few guest hosts to join me on the program, bringing their expertise and their questions along with them, to expand the ways that we dig into progressive museum practice in all its forms. Until then, you’re likely to be stuck with me running solo and figuring out how to do all of the editing, and technical sides of podcasting that Jeffrey always took care of. This will be a leaner operation for at least a little while, but we were founded on a DIY attitude that preferred scrappy passion over perfection.
So, I hope you will stick with me as we continue to develop along that path. For now, let’s dig into the topic of institutional bravery. A topic that Jeffrey was excited to investigate and who prompted us to look into this idea. What does it mean to be brave and to openly take a stance as a museum? What are the implications it has on funding and audience? I’m thrilled to talk to David Fleming, director, National Museums Liverpool, about this very topic.

David Fleming, OBE, MA, PhD, AMA, became director of National Museums Liverpool, NML, in 2001. Since then, NML audiences have risen from 700,000 to more than 3 million per year. And David has been responsible for the creation of two influential museums, the International Slavery Museum in 2007, and the Museum of Liverpool in 2011. He’s advised governments, national museums, and municipalities in countries such as Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Egypt, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Norway.
David is president of the UK Museums Association, a member of ICOM’s Ethics Committee, and founding president of the Federation of International Human Rights Museums. He’s written extensively, and lectured worldwide in more than forty countries on management and leadership, city history museums, social inclusion, human rights, politics, and museum ethics. David, welcome to Museopunks.

David Fleming:                    Hi. Well, I’m very glad to be here, Suse.

Suse Anderson:                    It is so great to have you here. I met you some years ago at the ICOM conference that was held in Sydney. And your talk at that conference has absolutely stayed with me in the coming years, which was on the political museum. And so, when Jeffrey and I was thinking about this idea of institutional bravery, you were immediately the person who came to my mind as someone who I thought would be able to give us some good insight into that topic.

David Fleming:                    Okay. Well, I’ll do my best.

Suse Anderson:                    I have absolute faith in you. But I think before we dive into some of the really meaty questions, I’d love if you could tell a little bit more about the National Museums Liverpool, and what the organization is and its structure cause I know that you have a number of different institutions that fall under that purview.

David Fleming:                    Yes. We’re a national museum service and unusually not based in London, but in a regional English city.

Suse Anderson:                    Hmm.

David Fleming:                    …that’s because historically, we were probably the biggest of all the English municipal museum services. Consequently have a universal role, if I can use that term …

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Fleming:                    … without bursting into laughter.

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs)

David Fleming:                    …which means that we cover just about every subject and discipline anybody, any normal person can possibly imagine. We were nationalized for political reasons in the 1980s.

Suse Anderson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Fleming:                    So in fact, have had the benefit of government funding ever since that time, which has probably meant that we have more money than we would have if we had stayed with Liverpool City Council. Of course, that’s with the benefit of hindsight. I’m not sure about that, but I would imagine that’s the case.

Suse Anderson:                     (laughs)

David Fleming:                     So we do run eight different museums here in Liverpool.

Suse Anderson:                     Uh-huh.

David Fleming:                     World Museum which contain natural sciences, ancient Greek, ancient Roman, ancient Egyptian, science and astronomy, and a mixture of collections. We have an aquarium. We have a planetarium here. So, it’s one of the classic, traditional, municipal type museums that we have here in the UK, but we also have several art galleries. We have a maritime museum. We have the slavery museum, the Museum of Liverpool, which looks at, the social history of the city. And so on, so we cover lots of different disciplines right across …

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Fleming:                    … the board.

Suse Anderson:                    One of the things that I think is really interesting about the National Museums Liverpool is your mission, which is to be the world’s leading example of an inclusive museum service. Which I think is a rather stunning statement of purpose. Can you share with us a little bit more about how that mission came to be?

David Fleming:                    Yes. There’s a little bit of hubris in there, which is why we say we aim to be, you know. That we never consider that we’ve achieved everything that we want to achieve.

Suse Anderson:                    Right.

David Fleming:                    But we do think that we should set out an ambitious claim for what the museum is trying to do. And to be the world’s leading example of an inclusive museum service, to me, means that we have a genuine understanding of different needs that museums can help fulfill. So we’re particularly strong, for example, on looking at issues of any kind of disadvantaged minority. We try to make sure that there’s proper representation right across the museum service. We want to achieve diverse audiences, and by that I mean we want to make sure that we avoid the mistakes museums in the past made of being elitist …

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

David Fleming:                    … and only appealing to a narrow section of society. So we’re very, very conscious of that’s what museums used to be like, and that makes us particularly determined not to be like that anymore. It’s not acceptable nowadays.

Suse Anderson:                    Well, I think they’re incredible ideals and incredible values. How does that inform then the internal practices of the museums? So, decision making or governance or even hiring practices? Is it only outward facing or does it also come back into how the museums are seeking to actually run themselves?

David Fleming:                    It’s a very interesting point. I’d like to think that we were both outward facing and inward facing too, but I am assured that while most of our team here regard us as, genuine and successful in trying to achieve diversity in terms of audiences, we’re less so internally.

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Fleming:                    … and this is clearly a source of worry to me that it’s all right being a diverse and inclusive museum service in the eyes of the rest of the world, but you know, we need our own people here to think that we achieve the same thing.
Now, I think that’s what we are. I think that’s what we’re trying to do, but obviously there’s many things that we need to do differently …

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Fleming:                    … in order to convince everybody else here that that’s the case.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah. I think it’s coming to some of the problems and the challenges that the sector, as a whole is facing at the moment, is really trying to think about how we are inward looking as well as outward looking. That said, in terms of the outward looking aspects, I know your strategic plan for 2016 to 2019 lists advocacy as one of the institution’s core strategic objectives.
Has creating a social impact always been a concern at the National Museums Liverpool? Or did that evolve over time and if it did, what were the forces that were really prompting this kind of outward advocacy, sort of, face for the institution?

David Fleming:                    That’s a very tricky one to answer because I don’t want to sound as though, things changed when I came here, but the role of museum directors is quite key …

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Fleming:                    … and often understated. You know, they exert a great deal of influence over their institutions, good, bad and indifferent. I’m not suggesting (laughing) everything is wonderful.

Suse Anderson:                    Right.

David Fleming:                    And what … I came here absolutely fired up with a desire to make NML the world’s most inclusive museum service. And you need that kind of stubbornness and determination to have a hope in hell of bringing something like that about. I think NML when I came here, I mean, it did have audiences of about 3/4 of a million a year. I think it did lots of things very well. And I think it didn’t have big enough endeavors, enough audiences.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

David Fleming:                    That’s something that I made very clear, when I came, that it would be my responsibility to address that. So it was a matter of identifying, well, what you need to do. But definitely the commitment of whoever’s in charge is absolutely key in these circumstances. And it’s something that we very, very often overlook.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah. It makes me wonder, then, with your own belief and your own emphasis on the importance of museums being political, being activist … When did you start to believe that museums should be openly political, and should be seeking or campaigning for social justice?

David Fleming:                    I suppose it came about gradually, although to be fair, I went into museums in the 1980s rather naively thinking that they were places that were full of diversity.

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs)

David Fleming:                    Of course I discovered fairly quickly that they weren’t, but the whole point of my going into museums was that before then I had been an academic historian, you know, preaching to audiences of two or three about all the things I believed in.

Suse Anderson:                    (laughing) Yes.

David Fleming:                    Which is the fate of many academic historians. And I actually wanted to go into a sector that had a big public and, you know, an audience that were on the end of what I wanted to say. And what I wanted to say was that normal people’s history was just as important as the extraordinary stuff that I’d been taught about at school. I thought I was going into a sector whereby, wherein people like my parents and my sister who left school very young …

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

David Fleming:                    And without being particularly, as we would say, educationally fulfilled, that they could go to museums as adults and still find fulfillment. And of course, as I realized I was being delusional because museums were not for people like them. They weren’t for people that had had a poor education. They were mostly created by people with a good education for people with a good education. So …

Suse Anderson:                    Yes

David Fleming:                    … my mission right from day one was always to try to do something about that. When I say day one, I suppose what I really mean is when as soon as I realized, when I started working in the local authority museums sector, that museums generally didn’t appeal to most people, most of the time. I thought that was a big problem for us.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah. It’s funny you sort of speaking about that formative experience. I too went into museums thinking they were incredibly, progressive spaces and that this is where ideas really came into fruition, sort of, particularly from an artistic perspective. And it was very interesting for me to learn that wasn’t always the case, that institutions themselves are often much more conservative than, I think, sometimes you think about from the outside.

David Fleming:                    I think that’s the case. I mean, what I realized was that lot of people with marvelous, wonderful, brilliant, curatorial skills, and not necessarily brilliant communicators. And somehow or other, you have to bridge the gap between the, you know, the scholarship and people who are not scholars, people who are thirsty for knowledge, and thirsty for information, and entertainment and excitement. But you need a real range of communicative skills in order to be able to bridge that gap, and it was something that, people need to make happen in museums.

It just doesn’t happen by osmosis. It doesn’t happen by itself. You know, we have to work really hard – it’s really having proper respect for the different skillsets that we need in museums because we are great engines of communication. We’re not just engines of scholarship. So I don’t want to be overly critical of what NML was like. It was full of great things, but there was still things missing, I felt, when I came here. And the missing things were those things that would connect us as a great museum service with most people, most of the time, which is really what our mission is all about.

Suse Anderson:                    I really love that you mention not just entertainment, but excitement, the idea that a museum can be exciting because I think often working in the sector we’re quite excited by things that we see and do, but I’m not necessarily sure that a lot of my friends or family would think of a museums as an exciting place to be. They might enjoy it but not necessarily find it exciting.

David Fleming:                    What one of the key insights, which I kind of had was when I realized that museums actually need to be very emotional places if they are to connect with most people, most of the time.

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Fleming:                    And the traditional museum was a very dispassionate place that didn’t really do emotional things. It did scholarly things, and it did scholarly things in a fairly dry way, which might appeal to some people but doesn’t appeal to most people, most of the time. So we have to unlock that emotion that is locked up in lots of the collections. And my particular route into all this kind of thing was through social histories, through literally – the history of ordinary people which is very easy to get excited about, but somebody has to actually, you know, put time and effort in to make it look that way. Otherwise, it’s just dry, boring history. The kind that many of us had to endure that when we were at school.

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs) Yeah. I can see that. I think this idea of different communication styles and, sort of, different ways of bringing audiences in is really important. One of the things I love, I remember hearing you talk or seeing a video about you talking about the design of the Museum of Liverpool, where the visitors land in the center of the museums rather than, sort of, being brought in on a linear journey. And it strikes me that those design choices and those ideas might be also important for this idea of how people aren’t themselves, but also how they place themselves in the space.

David Fleming:                    Yeah, it’s true that when we were conceiving the Museum of Liverpool, I remember speaking to some master planning people that were, you know trying to get us, to help sort out our ideas. And I drew a little stick person going into a box marked M for museum, and the stick person went in with one head and came out with two heads.

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs)

David Fleming:                    And it was kind of a metaphor for the kind of impact that I felt a museum needed to have. And it’s certainly true that we wanted people to arrive in the center of the museum rather than have to go through the process of turning up at the front door, wandering around a prescriptive path, and then coming out again, you know, of the front door, via the shop and all that kind of thing, because that’s not necessarily the way people’s brains work. And in practical terms, a museum that has a story, that’s has a beginning, a middle, and an end, it doesn’t always work like that, you know … It is not an examination course. We’re not expecting people to emerge from the museums and be experts in what they’ve just seen and to take and examination and get a qualification …

We’re simply there to try and stimulate thought and get people, maybe, thinking about things that they hadn’t thought about before. And you don’t necessarily do that by having prescriptive linear routes. You do it by showing them, you know, just light and shade, and evoking emotions and giving impressions and symbols rather than necessarily answers and so called truths. And I think that’s the big difference between what a modern museums tries to do and what the old fashioned traditional 19th century museum used to try to do.

You know it’s much more didactic and searching for eternal truths. And I have to say that those eternal truths, if they are there, it’s not … I’m necessarily the person to be (laughs) you know, trying to find them on people’s behalf, but I would like to think that if I’m good at my job, I do end up with audiences that are able to think a little bit more broadly about how they fit into the world.

Suse Anderson:                    That’s fantastic. When you talk to other directors or senior staff around the sector, do you find that they have similar perspectives, similar thoughts around these ideas, what I’m calling institutional bravery, but these notions of activist museums and the emotive power of the museum … And in fact even just that notion of telling everyone’s stories as opposed to just capital sort of important stories.

David Fleming:                    I think that’s a lot more likely nowadays than it used to be.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

David Fleming:                    I think the museum sector is stuffed full of people who really want museums to be impactful on as many people as possible. One of the problems that we’ve got nowadays is that everybody is becoming so obsessed with the resources that we’ve got, or the shrinking resources, that they end up sounding like a gang of accountants rather than a gang of people that are there to help make the world a different, you know, more imaginative place. And, that is a bit of a constraint on everybody, but I think – it would be fair to say I do discover many more instances nowadays of people that are desperate to make the museum work, rather than conforming to some strange 19th century model of what a museum used to be like.
There are still people like that around. Though, having said that, let’s not get too carried away …

Suse Anderson:                    Right.

David Fleming:                    … with thinking about that. You know, museums are now in a better place than they used to be. Many, many, many of them are, not all of them.

Suse Anderson:                    Well, you just mentioned funding. How do you make, then, the political argument and the economic argument for inclusive museum work? I know that politicians, funders would often be concerned with the economic arguments rather than, say the value-driven arguments. So how do you really get that point of inclusivity and access across in a political or economic sense?

David Fleming:                    It’s a tricky one, but I’ve never yet met a politician that didn’t want to be able to demonstrate that good value is being achieved from the monies that they were responsible for.

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Fleming:                    And it’s just the same in museums, if they’re for better by that token, to be perceived to be impactful with big, diverse audiences than it is to be not impactful with small, elitist audiences. And it doesn’t matter what your politics are – to think that it’s good to be able to demonstrate that money is being well spent. So the key to gaining that kind of respect and support, and hopefully, protecting the funding as best you can in today’s difficult climate, is to be as good as you can be, is to make people appreciate that museums are important. They are impactful. They are popular and they are diverse, and they understand how the modern world works. It, therefore, needs us all to be a little bit more involved than perhaps we used to be. And coming out of that scullery box that museums used to place themselves in.

I mean, I think being scholarly, is very important. Don’t misunderstand me, but there’s got to be more than that if we’re looking for public support and public funding. It’s just got to be more than that nowadays.

Suse Anderson:                    What do you think, then, that the socio-economic circumstances in Liverpool have made more space for the kinds of work that you’re trying to do and the stories that you’re trying to tell in the National Museums Liverpool? Do you think that you’d be able to make the same argument for the need for inclusivity in, a bigger city such as London? Or do you think it … How much of that is local circumstances as well that allows for you to make those sorts of changes and tell those stories?

David Fleming:                    Well, yes … Good point because museums are very (laughs) easily, get themselves involved in worrying about visitors, tourist, and so on and so forth. And in fact, we see our core work here in Liverpool as being directed towards the needs of local people first and foremost. If you get that right and you produce great inventive, imaginative, and emotional museums, of course, visitors to the city want to come and see you.

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Fleming:                    You become part of the tourist economy, but setting out to do that seems to me to be a rather bizarre way. It certainly wouldn’t appeal to me. It wouldn’t stimulate me. It wouldn’t be the kind of thing that I would be aiming to do, given a clean sheet, you know, to run a tourist attraction. That doesn’t have any appeal to me – at all. What does appeal to me is making museums work for local people, and Liverpool has been badly affected by economics over the years. So we have high unemployment, we have low education attainment.

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Fleming:                    It’s a tough old part of the world. And I’ve often said if we can make museums work in Liverpool, you can make museums work anywhere. You know? It’s a bit of a glib thing to say because the UK is by comparison with many nations in the world, phenomenally wealthy.

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Fleming:                    Nonetheless, there are people here, you know, living in grinding poverty, and – the day we forget that- that those are the kind of people that help make up part of our audience, is the day that we all pack it in and well, I don’t know. (laughs) Go work. Go work somewhere else really.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

David Fleming:                    But that’s what makes successful museums. It’s having a really good sense of who your public can be, and respecting them and not thinking that you have to, for example, dumb down in order to make the connections. You don’t have to. I can’t think of a single example, anywhere in the world, where dumbing down has led to an increased diversity of audience. I can point to a number of instances where having not much of an intelligent message, stimulates lots of tourism. And I can think of a number of family based attractions that do that. You know, where there’s no particular message going on there.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

David Fleming:                    It’s just entertainment and it just attracts high spending tourists. That’s not the business I think I’m in. I think I’m in a different business from that.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah. I think that’s really interesting that- that concentrating on your local audience, and how you make sure that you’re telling stories they can relate to can actually speak much more broadly than that as well. That you then are speaking stories that become interesting and relevant to tourists because they’re seeking to find out about that area as well.

David Fleming:                    Of course they are. I mean, I remember when we were talking about setting up the International Slavery Museum, there were people in the tourist industry thinking, “Well, that’s not going to make Liverpool look very good. Who’s going to want to come and see something like that?” Well, the answer is loads of people.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

David Fleming:                    Tourists are just as likely to want to go and see something challenging, and dangerous as it were, as subject matter, as they are to have to find out about Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and Rumpelstiltskin, and so on and so forth. Absolutely just as likely, but we have to do more than simply do things in a scholarly way. We have to do them in a way that does help us compete with the world. The slightly less intelligent world of tourist attractions.

Suse Anderson:                    So being brave … I mean, you’re just sort of talking about things that are dangerous, dangerous ideas, dangerous content. Being brave often requires a person or an institution to choose a side with respect to an issue. It requires an opinion and, oftentimes, we find that museums seem to be hesitant or afraid to outwardly have an opinion for fear of alienating some of their constituency whether that’s visitors, whether that’s their funders, or their board, those who might disagree with such an opinion. How does NML approach this aspect of institutional bravery? Obviously, we know that museums are not neutral spaces, but how do you address the outward opinion or that way forward?

David Fleming:                    Yeah you have used the term “brave” and “bravery” a few times. I don’t use those terms.

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Fleming:                    I can see where you getting at, and I’m flattered that that’s what you think, but it’s not something that- that we set out … We don’t set out to be brave. We don’t set out to, you know, oppose orthodox ideas. But what we’re stubborn and very determined in trying to achieve impact and diversity. And if that makes us look brave, well, I suppose all well and good. But really, you know… How can I put this? The bravery, I suppose, if that’s the right word for it, is-tied up in tackling years and years and years of orthodox thinking.

Suse Anderson:                    Yes.

David Fleming:                    So I don’t necessarily consider it, you know … it’s a certain kind of emotional reaction and rejection of the way that many museums have set out to be over the years. And I think some people, you see, might say it’s foolhardy rather than brave to take on what you might call the establishment and to start saying things like, “Museums are not neutral, never have been neutral. They pretended to be neutral.”Maybe that’s brave? Maybe it’s a bit stupid? Maybe it’s a bit realistic? I’m not quite sure what it is. It doesn’t really matter. The point is that museums have dressed themselves up as neutral over the years, and it’s absolutely what they haven’t been.

That in no way can any museum justifiably describe itself as neutral, and you know, having a straight down the middle story about anything … We’re all full of biases, and opinions, and prejudices. And we apply those to our work in museums for good, bad, or indifferent, again. But if we could drop this fiction that somehow or other there’s … You can avoid controversy and still be a museum that’s worth its salt. Then we would be a lot more impactful as an entire sector.

And I think it comes because the worst part of a scholastic approach to life is to imagine that there are ultimate truths that avoid politics, and avoid opinion, and avoid danger, and darkness, and so on. And the real world’s not like that.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

David Fleming:                    So, the challenge for me is for museums to be scholastic at the same time as making contact and making connections with people that are not scholastic. And that means not being, not pretending to be neutral about everything. But first time I ever encountered this neutrality was when I was working in the City of Hull in England in the 1980s. And my desire was to create an exhibition about the miner’s strike that was running at the time in that part of the world, Yorkshire. And I have to say that my own approach to it would have been pro-miner and a little bit more skeptical about what the police were doing at the time.

Suse Anderson:                    Mm.

David Fleming:                    But I was under real pressure to take a neutral line, and not take sides. And I felt, “Well, this isn’t real life, you know? What person out there, in their right mind, thinks that? That a museum is not entitled to have any kind of opinion about anything.” And I think it’s trying to tackle that head on that makes the modern museum work. That instead of seeking safety, in not expressing an opinion about anything. On the contrary, I think museums are bursting with opinions. It’s just that they’ve never really faced up to that in the past.

Suse Anderson:                    Does that mean, and I’m possibly being a little facetious here, but not entirely, does that mean museums should be seeking to have a little bit of controversy with their exhibitions? Should they actually be seeking out to rile someone up and to know that they’re actually making an impact and getting an emotional response?

David Fleming:                    I don’t think you need to seek out riling people up. I think if you try to analyze, some of the factors in society, you will cause controversy.

Suse Anderson:                    Mm.

David Fleming:                    If you’re dealing in human rights, it’s a very controversial area. You will be involved in arguments. There’ll be lots of people that don’t like anything to do with addressing issues of human rights. Whatever you say, there’ll be somebody out there that doesn’t like it. And I’ve often said to people that are working in the human rights field, “Listen, if you’re not up for the fight and the arguing, go work somewhere else. I’m not quite sure where it is that you’re suppose to go. But if you’re going to be in museums and you’re going to be working in areas like human rights, you will be involve in controversy. And you will be involved in politics. Get over yourself, and if you’re working here, that’s what’s going to happen.”

And I think that museums realizing that they are places of controversy rather than neutral safe places – that realization is becoming more and more widespread. And it has a very important impact on the kind of skills that we need in museums, you know, to be able to cope with that kind of thing. So there’s no point in just being an introverted scholastic type, and working in a museum and expecting the public to have a big response to you. They won’t. You’ve got to have better communication skills or have access to communication skills to make sure that those connections are being made. And facing up to the fact that we’re political, we’re not neutral. We are places of discourse, and debate, and dialogue, and controversy. Then that’s where we need to be.

Suse Anderson:                    David, that is fantastic. I think we will wrap it up just there, but thank you so much for coming on Museopunks. It has been enlightening to talk to you and I would recommend to anyone who is interested in your work that they go and find some of the recordings and speeches that you’ve done because there are many of them online and they are always inspirational.

David Fleming:                    That’s very kind of you to say but thank you. It’s been lovely to talk to you.

Suse Anderson:                    Thank you to David for joining me on Museopunks and sharing your insight into progressive museum practice. Since we recorded this interview, it’s actually been announced that David will be stepping down as director or NML in March taking up a new professorial role with the Liverpool Hope University. So this singular episode in Museopunks history has been a marker of change for everyone associated with it. And of course, I can’t sign off without saying a massive thank you to Jeffrey Inscho, my friend, my collaborator, my co-conspirator, making this podcast with you has been one of the highlights of my professional life.

When you first approached me back in 2013, to see whether I wanted to make a podcast with you, we barely knew each other beyond twitter chats, but I’m so glad you decided to reach out. I have gained so much from working with you from your thoughtful, creative ways of looking at museums and the world at large. I can’t wait to catch up with you the next time I’m in Pittsburgh. For anyone who wants to reach out to Jeffrey, you can do so on Twitter @jinscho. You can also connect with David Fleming on Twitter @doctordavidfleming. Museopunks is presented every month by the American Alliance of Museums. Drop me a line on twitter @Museopunks or check out the extended show notes at I’d love to hear your thoughts about all things progressive practice. And of course, you can subscribe to Museopunks at iTunes or SoundCloud.

Until next time…


 David FlemingHeadshot of a man wearing a suit and tie looking at the camera slight smile with short dark brown hair.

David Fleming OBE MA PhD AMA became Director of National Museums Liverpool (NML) in 2001, since when NML audiences have risen from 700,000 to more than 3 million per year. David has been responsible for the creation of two influential museums, the International Slavery Museum in 2007, and the Museum of Liverpool in 2011.

He has advised governments, national museums and municipalities in countries such as Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Egypt, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Norway.

David is President of the UK Museums Association, a member of ICOM’s Ethics Committee and Founding President of the Federation of International Human Rights Museums (FIHRM).

He has written extensively and lectured in more than 40 countries on management and leadership, city history museums, social inclusion, human rights, politics, and museum ethics.

Show Notes

National Museums Liverpool

The Political Museum

Museums and Difficult Issues

National Museums Liverpool – Strategic Plan 2016-2019

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Graphic Design of the Museopunks logo is by Selena Robleto.

Museopunks is presented by the American Alliance of Museums.
Twitter: @museopunks

Episode 23: The Gendered Museum

Did you know that several studies in recent years have shown that when women enter a specific field in large numbers, the pay for that field declines overall, even for the same jobs that men were doing? This is one of many implications of gendered professions, which are at the core of this month’s episode of Museopunks. The Punks dig into the implications of the gendered museum, and its impact on pay (also here) and the sector more broadly with Anne W. Ackerson and Joan H. Baldwin, whose new book Women in the Museum explores the professional lives of the sector’s female workforce today and examines the challenges they face working in what was, until recently, a male-dominated field. The Punks are then joined by nikhil trivedi for a conversation about the impact of gender and masculinity on technology work, inside museums and beyond.

Please note: nikhil’s interview includes discussion of specific actions men can take to dismantle gender oppression and create more supportive institutions for people of all genders. He has kindly created a supportive document with more information for those who wish to dig deeper, which we’ve included in the show notes.

Suse Anderson:                    9+(meow) Oh my God. (music)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Good morning Suse.

Suse Anderson:                    Hey Jeffrey, I don’t think we should start off with [inaudible 00:00:16] words, good morning, we don’t know what time people are going to be listening to it.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      It’s, it’s morning somewhere isn’t it?

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs) Sure.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      The sun, the sun is always shining beautifully on some museum professional somewhere in this world.

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs) That’s, that’s definitely true, well if that is, uh, if that is you, uh, this morning, I hope that is a really great way to uh kick off the day, but uh, if you’re listening to this at some other type of day, good evening, good night, uh, whatever, whatever time of day it works for you.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yes definitely.

Suse Anderson:                    How are you doing anyway Jeffrey?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      I’m doing well. I’m doing well, how are you?

Suse Anderson:                    Uh, pretty good, can’t complain.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Feeling good?

Suse Anderson:                    Feeling pretty good, uh-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Getting down to the, getting down to the end of it here.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, I’ll say the, the final weeks of pregnancy are a little less fun than some of the earlier ones, but that is fine.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yes. (laughs) Well, uh, yeah, I uh, you know, my, my wife, Jill, um, uh, we had our daughter, uh at the end of August. So she was in the thick of it, in the head of it, and um while I cannot empathize with you, I understand um, what you’re going through in some little bit.

Suse Anderson:                    Uh yeah, I’m sure, this is the thing that many people go through, and honestly I’ve had a pretty easy pregnancy, so I have no complaints whatsoever. In fact, it’s just really nice to be still at a point where I can say, hop on, hop on a recording, and make a podcast with you.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, definitely, so and, and you know, we will put a contingency plan in place.

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Make sure listeners are, uh, kept in the loop with the latest, uh, developments, but um-

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      You know, so Suse, uh considering uh, you know, uh, where we are, what, what are we talking about this month?

Suse Anderson:                    So, we’re talking about this idea of the [gendered 00:02:07] Museum, um, when I, when we were early planning this show, when we were talking about coming back with Museopunks. I knew that my timeline was going to be somewhat interrupted around this time of year, and I thought it might be nice to treat it as a feature, not a bug, treating a pregnancy as something, uh, to be celebrated, but also to dig into some of the implications of things like uh having children, and what it does for career, and thinking about gender more broadly and its impact on the museum profession. It’s impact on um, on, on pay for the sector. We talk about um, pink collar jobs, which are jobs that you know, when, when more women become involved in a, in a sector or in a job, often the pay scale decreases for everyone so really thinking about some of the implications of, of gender in the museum.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, and we have som really great guests uh, at this episode. We have Anne Ackerson and Joan Baldwin, who, um, you may know, uh, write the wonderful site Leadership Matters. Um, who are also doing some interesting thinking and writing on the topic of, of gender equity, uh and its relationship to museum leadership. Um, and then we’re also going to talk to nikhil trivedi. Um, and I think it’s really important, um, nikhil, uh does some really great work, um, around social justice, um, he runs, uh, co-publishes uh Visitors of Color. A project, which some of you, our listeners may be familiar with but um you’re probably wondering, you know, why, why are we talking to a man about gen, about gender equality, and um, you know nikhil I think will have some interesting perspective on how men in the workplace, and, and the museum workplace can support um, and, and help effect uh some progress in, in this area.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah absolutely Jeffrey, I think it’s really important for us, uh, as a sector, but really just as people that we don’t limit who can talk about um, things that are pertinent to the whole sector. And, thinking about gender, thinking about equity, and equality, we really shouldn’t be limiting the conversations of who can participate just to um those who most directly seem affected.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, dialog from all angles, uh, only can uh help any situation so um, lets, lets get to the dialog. (music)

Suse Anderson:                    Anne Ackerson and Joan Baldwin write and publish Leadership Matters, a website focusing on 21st century museum leadership. Anne served as director of several historic house museums, and historical societies in Central and Eastern New York, before becoming the Director of the Museum Association of New York. She currently serves the Council of State Archivists as its Executive Director, and is an independent consultant, focusing on the organizational development issues the smaller cultural institution. A Maryland native, Joan Baldwin served as director for several house museums, a staffer for the museum program at the New York State Council on the Arts, and Director of the Education and Interpretation at Hancock Shaker Village. She met Anne Ackerson whilst working as a consultant, a friendship that led to a decade long collaboration during Anne’s tenure at the Museum Association of New York. In 2013, the pair published leadership matters and this summer, Women in the Museum, Lessons from the Workplace. In addition, this year, they are co-teaching a course on museum leadership for Johns Hopkins University. Joan, Anne, welcome to Museopunks, it is so wonderful to have you here.

Anne Ackerson:                    Thanks so much, happy to be here.

Joan Baldwin:                       Thank you.

Suse Anderson:                    It is lovely to talk to you. So, you’ve both done a lot of powerful writing on museum leadership, uh, whether on your blog or in your books, but one of the issues that continues to surface in your work, and I think is really significant for us and what we’re talking about today, is this import, is the importance of gender equity for the sector. Can you talk a little bit about why this has been such a focus for each of you?

Anne Ackerson:                    Oh, aside from the fact that we’re both women, working in the field? (laughter)

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

Anne Ackerson:                    Uh, (laughs) I think that uh, well I’ll, I’ll go first. Um, I think in part it has to do with the fact that uh, well we are women working in the field, but um, we have, we have talked with a number of women, a lot of woman over the last ten years or so about their workplace issues. Um, we started this conversation, I think at the Museum Association of New York when we were looking at next generation leadership and talking with men and women. Um, and as time has gone by, I think it has at, at least for me, from my perspective, the issue of gender equity has, has grown in importance. Um, there’s also a, an interesting sort of connection back to the 1970s, uh, when women were, were talking about many of the same issues in the, in the museum field as well as generally. Um, and here we find ourselves again, 40 plus years later, we’re talking about these same issues. Uh, we’re, we’re looking at the social situation across our country and around the world, and the issue of women, in society, and so I think it’s just been kind of a, a reoccurring and expanding story, over, over that time period that I’ve been involved in museums.

Joan Baldwin:                       Yeah, and I would, I would echo everything that Anne has said, although I, I mean I would add that when we were working on Leadership Matters, our first book, a number of the women that we spoke with said, “Boy, you know, when you get to the, when you get to writing the book about women, call me back, because I have a lot to say.” And it was, it was one of the things that kind of percolated along in the background, and made us continue to talk and think about this whole topic. And, um, yeah, I, and it helps being a woman as well. Um, but I do think it is the most, the least talked about subject in museums at the moment, and also the hottest topic. If you want to see a group of women’s hair grow, go on fire, start talking about this issue.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      And rightfully so, um, you know, you both write a lot about um the pink collar workplace, and so for listeners who may be hearing this term for the first time, could, could you just explain that concept. Um so we can kind of a, um, um, shared understanding of that?

Joan Baldwin:                       You want to go first Anne?

Anne Ackerson:                    No, you go ahead Joan.

Joan Baldwin:                       (laughs) Okay. Um, pink collar is a term that I believe was coined about 10 years ago, uh, in reference to fields that are traditionally dominated by women. It, it’s not a particularly complimentary term. Those fields are uh, typical, are nursing, social work, libraries, and, and now museums are almost there. Women are at 46.7% of the working population in museums. Um, the reason it’s not a particularly kind appellation is that it refers to the fact that female dominated workforces tend to be lower paid. Uh, and when, when, when fields turn pink collar, the salary goes down, counterintuitively men, that enter nursing, tend to do better and make more, which is, you might imagine somewhat irritating.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Anne Ackerson:                    And they get less, those fields often get less respect. Uh, because they’re dominated by women, and so, um, and by less respect I mean um, they may not see the same levels of funding. Uh, or capital investment, that other fields might receive. Um, in the political arena, they may be sidelined. Those fields may be sidelined as well, because uh, people generally men, don’t respect those kind of fields as much as they respect the fields of manufacturing, the making of things, the production of, of things to be sold in the marketplace. Where many of the professions where women are clustered, are serving professions. And they’re um, and so I think that’s another reason why, uh, they don’t necessarily get the same kind of respect as other professions do. But we know, certainly we read about it every day in the newspaper um, that um, gender equity issues affect all industries, whether they’re for profit, non-profit, governmental, this is an issue that knows no industry bounds. And so its, it’s um, it’s something I think that women can, they see, they can see the issues very easily, no matter what sector they’re working in.

Suse Anderson:                    So this a, I’ve thought a lot about these issues around sort of the pink collar workplace, and its implications. I think a lot about it, uh, when we think about museums and their embrace of say social media, because that tends to also be a very pink collar part of the institution. There are aspects of the institution where we have, you know, women take on a more dominant role in other parts of the museum world where, where that, that gender balance is, is a little bit different. I, you’re starting to talk about the implications both in terms of pay equity, but also things like respect, and the way an entire sector is thought of.

Anne Ackerson:                    That’s right.

Suse Anderson:                    What then, do become sort of those longer term implications for us as a sector? Um, in terms of who we can attract, the stories we tell, all of those sorts of things, if we are in fact becoming increasingly female dominated.

Anne Ackerson:                    That’s a good question. Um, you know, I think in the field, traditionally women have clustered in education, around education departments. Uh, they cluster in um, development departments. Um, interestingly they cluster in human resource departments. They very departments that might be able to, to kind of move the needle on some of these issues.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Hmm.

Suse Anderson:                    I think the reason I was interested in asking that question, I’m not sure that there are answers. Just as you, as you speak through this topic, it makes me really think about, um, I suppose some of the, the other tensions that we have within the sector, whether it’s tensions around being visitor focused, versus sort of custodian focused. Like, I wonder how many, many of these issues actually do relate to particular splits that start to happen within the sector, and where there’s sort of concentrations of people and energy.

Joan Baldwin:                       Well, one of the things that struck us and I’m not sure if this is exactly what, where you’re going with that, but is the way the museum world, it, it treats, it treats the outer community, the um, the people in front of the stage, the audience very differently than it tends to treat the people backstage in the workplace. And there’s a real disconnect between the sort of embraceable you attitude toward the audience. You know, whatever we can do, we want a diverse audience, we want to serve a diverse audience, to the way we act, in the, in the staff room.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Right.

Joan Baldwin:                       Um, and, and I think that, that disconnect is very troubling, and, and it speaks also to these issues of diversity that, that there’s a great deal of hand ringing about right now. But, I will tell you that if what, if white women are paid badly and treated badly in the workplace, and many of them are, that women of color and transgender women are treated even worse.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative). I think its, I think its interesting that um, the, these conversations especially on, with, with you both, and on your site, are within the context of museum leadership. Um, and I’m wondering what actions museum directors or even boards might take to kind of begin to positively impact, you know, positively, um, uh, erase that, um, external internal barrier that you just spoke about-

Anne Ackerson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Or positively impact, um equity within the sector. Are there any things that, that could, that could happen right now?

Anne Ackerson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative). Right, well I think everything, everything has to do with being more self-aware. And, we’re, we’re firm believers in the fact that, that boards, museum boards set the tone, and the tenor for an institution, whether they do it intentionally or not. The fact is the way boards act and what they say, permeates an institution. And uh boards have to become more self-aware about these issues about gender and diversity, uh, access, the, the whole inclusivity conversation as it were. And we found out in our research, that uh, most museum boards, uh tend to be, especially in the really large institutions, tend to be white, dominated by white males. And that the work of the board, through its committee system, tends to be divided or structured along the lines of gender. So that for example, the finance committee tends to be chaired by a man. The fundraising committee tends to be chaired by a woman. The education committee tends to be chaired by a woman. Strategic planning often chaired by men, and on, and on it goes. So, the, that, that structure by gender is in place at the highest level of the institution. And, boards tend to hire directors, CEOs, that um, I think often um philosophically may align themselves, uh, uh, with the thinking of a board. Boards tend to hire people like themselves, I guess is what I’m trying to say.

And, and so then the per, so then the mindset, the thinking, permeates even further through the institution. I think it’s very difficult for a director who doesn’t agree with the board on some of these issues to try and institute, uh, more equity in the ranks of the institution without, without getting some pushback from, from a board that’s more traditionally structured, and is largely, um, run by men and by white men at that.

Joan Baldwin:                       And I, I think the other issue is, that there are many uh, museums particularly those sort of small bigs if you will, the, the small regional museums, and small historical societies, who don’t, who may not even have a personnel policy, but often don’t have an HR department. And so, when there are issues of, um, implicit bias or um, benign bias, um, there’s no place for people to go. Uh, and in fact many of the women we’ve talked to, were told don’t say anything. You know, it’s better for your career, if you just don’t say anything. Get over whatever happened to you, and just go on. So, I think, yes, Anne’s right, it comes from the board first. But there needs to be some acknowledgment that your workforce is important and, and they need a, a place to go and a policy to work under.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, it’s interesting, I mean you’re talking a little bit then about um, a, a silencing and the need to speak out, and I think that even the fact that you’ve both been advocating for a lot of this work throughout your career speaks to, the importance of those voices. But it makes me wonder whether there are issues that um, women uniquely face when taking on leadership roles in museums. Whether it is that board relationship or in fact whether it’s just about find, um, compatible boards and, and finding, maybe that it’s not um, issues that are unique to women, but issues unique to people who are trying to make change within the sector. What, what do you think in that context?

Anne Ackerson:                    Oh, I think being a women and trying to make change can often be a double whammy. Uh, uh, in some institutions. I mean making change, in and of itself is a difficult thing to do whether you’re a man or a woman. And, um, and, and then add the layer of being a woman on top of that, where often, women are not respected. Their, their opinions are not respected. Um, they’re not um taken seriously. Um, I think it makes their jobs even, even more difficult. And, uh, and I suppose that’s probably one of the reasons why we don’t see more women in leadership positions. Um, because it’s just, we know leadership is tough anyway. And uh, if you want to be a change agent, it’s going to be really difficult. And um [crosstalk 00:21:07]-

Joan Baldwin:                       On the-

Anne Ackerson:                    Let Joan-

Joan Baldwin:                       Well, well I was just going to add that on the other hand, a lot of women achieve their leadership position because they’re given the troubled institution. And the hope is that they’ll bring it around. Now, this is not a, none of these things are easy, and there’s all sorts of reasons why that situation happens, but it happens a lot. Um, and one of the things that Elaine [Gurion 00:21:40] said to me a long time ago was, “If you look across the sector in government, obviously the, the chief person is a, is a political appointee, and that is almost always a man.” The second in command is almost a woman, because that’s the, that’s the position where things get done.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Hmm. Interesting, so last, last month you, you wrote a post, um, I believe it was uh, was it Joan, um published on, um, Baby Boomers, and Museum Leadership Positions, Retiring Responsibly.

Joan Baldwin:                       Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Do you see this oncoming wave of retirement or shift in generational leadership as potentially and opportunity to leapfrog some of these issues that currently exist within the sector?

Joan Baldwin:                       Hmm, I hadn’t, I hadn’t actually thought of it that way, but one could only hope. I know there’s a lot of anxious and cranky um, Gen-Exers just waiting for my generation to step the heck out of the way. (laughter) But yes, I mean, I, I, look, I welcome change whenever it comes. Um, I really think a lot of these issues need to be addressed by AM and ASLH at some sort of fundamental national level, um, to try and, and force people into some behavior. But, um, but yeah. I, I, I don’t want, I don’t want to blame my generation for letting this happen though.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Sure.

Joan Baldwin:                       I don’t want to leave anybody with that thought.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Joan Baldwin:                       I, you know, Anne and, Anne and I and a, and a lot of the people who are our age, and our colleagues have done a lot to make change. Um, so I, I don’t know, Anne do you have any thoughts?

Anne Ackerson:                    Well, I just want to add that, uh, I think yeah, that there’s an opportunity. There can be an opportunity as people retire out of the field. Um, for new, for new thinking to come forward and um, and as it should. Uh, what I’m thinking about though as you’re talking though Joan is um, that if the, if boards of institutions aren’t changing at the same rate as, as, as people are retiring, um, we’re still going to come up against some obstacles there. And, and so young, younger generations just need to be aware. It goes back to my, one of my earlier comments about, we’ve got to be self-aware, more self-aware across the board, on all of this. That goes for board members, that goes for staff leaders, and it goes for staff, and volunteers too, lets not forget them. And, we just need to you know, be more conscious about these issues, and how they play out in organizations and we need to talk about that a lot more than … And we are talking about that a lot more. I think across the board.

You know, there’s this younger cohort um in our field, who’s just, who’s just really, has, has taken this notion of diversity, and intersectionality, and they’re running with it, and they’re, they’re talking and their, they’re really making a, an impact. And um, and that’s the first time in a long, long time, that anyone has stepped forward, uh, that I can recall. Other than this band of women, back in the early 1970s who formed a Women’s Caucus at AAM and tried to get movement, uh, along the lines of pay equity and access to promotion, and, and a few other things. So, this is, its, it’s wonderful. It’s happening, I see this wonderful convergence, and I think it’s really uh, the time is ripe.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah. So, um, it, one of my mantras here, and anyone who works with me will know I have many mantras, but one of them is that uh, real change happens when top down leadership meets bottom up momentum and squeezes in the middle there. [crosstalk 00:26:02]-

Anne Ackerson:                    Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      And so, um, I’m wondering what, if anything you have to say to the, to the, to the, the, the younger cohort, or the bottom, who are kind of starting this bottom up momentum and, and any words of advice you might have, um, to uh, to, to keep that and grow that?

Joan Baldwin:                       Yeah, women need to help women. I, I don’t think we’ve been all together great about that. And I think that, that we, we need to be better mentors and advisors, and friends, and supporters to help other women enter this field, which has been traditionally male, and hierarchical. And, I think, the other thing is I think women really need to negotiate salary. I think they need to get over the, I am so glad you, you want me feeling, and say, “I’m really glad you want me, but here’s what I need from you.” And I think those two things will help a great deal.

Anne Ackerson:                    There’ve been some, uh, studies done of uh, successful family owned businesses, so this is in, in the for profit sector. And, in relation to gender, uh, one of a couple of, a couple of characteristics of successful family owned businesses have included the fact that there are um, there’s a conscious effort uh, to, to put women into um, the, the workforce, the workforce, and move them up. And that those women become role models for other women in their companies. And, um, role models we think are absolutely critical to helping young women coming into the, any field, to see the pathway. And that’s not to say they follow the same path, but they see that there’s a path, and they can choose to take it, they can choose to make their own path, but the point is that um, we are our, we are a cohort, we’re a big cohort in the museum field, and we, we need to watch out for each other. And, and help to make those paths clear and, and help us, and help each other move along the pathways to success.

Suse Anderson:                    Well then, I guess the other question is how do we, not just help each other, at um, not just, not just women helping each other, but how do we help each other as a whole sector? How do men be involved in this change? How do we uh, actually teach each other to be leaders and to work together to, to make these changes? How do we do this as a sector?

Anne Ackerson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative), um, don’t, don’t get us wrong, we uh, we know that there are many men in our sector who really care about these issues. And are very supportive, and they want to, to help in any way that they can. Um, I think sector wide, I guess Joan talked about it a little bit. I think um, as it relates to our professional associations. Uh, it would be helpful I think for, you know, some woman working in a, in a museum, somewhere in America to know that, her professional associations are openly and strongly advocating for her. And, they’re, they’re doing it by way of talking about not only the pay gap, and setting some standards regarding uh pay in this field, but they’re talking to and, and educating boards of trustees. They’re educating staff, current staff leaders, directors of organizations in these issues. And, um, making it a part of the standards and best practices that museums aspire to. Um, I think that, that’s one way.

Joan Baldwin:                       Yeah, and I would just add, you know, issues like uh, taking the bias out of hiring, which I think AAM deserves huge points for sort of leading the charge on. Um, being conscious about workplace language and behavior that’s offensive. Um, providing regular gender equity training. I, I think, you know, women are often afraid to speak up when something offensive has happened at work, and I think we all, everyone around the table, regardless of gender, needs to get past that and both stop the offensive behavior, and be supportive of that person.

Anne Ackerson:                    Uh, we found, uh, at the uh last AAM meeting, where Joan and I, uh, put together a panel, uh to talk about uh, to talk about gender issues in the museum field. Um, we had a standing room only audience. Uh, what was it Joan, about a hundred and fifty?

Joan Baldwin:                       150 plus.

Anne Ackerson:                    People. And there, there were men in that audience, but the majority were women, and the, and, and it ranged, the women ranged across the age range, um there were women of color there, so it was a, it was a diverse audience. Um, we asked, uh, the audience by a show of hands to uh tell us, uh how many of them felt that they had been discriminated uh, against, uh in their careers, uh, because of their gender. And three-quarters of the hands in the audience went up. And then we started to hear stories from, you know, unconscious bias, micro-aggressions, to outright felonies. Uh, our session could’ve lasted the entire morning. Women want an opportunity and men too, I would say, they need an opportunity to come together, to talk, to share their stories, to um, get advice as well as support. And, and we don’t provide that really in any kind of … Well, we don’t. We don’t provide it at any sort of formal way at any of our annual meetings, or major gatherings of our professional associations. That’s one small way we could, we could maybe help. Um, is, is give people an opportunity to share their story.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative), well, you know, we clearly have a lot of work to do in the sector, but I think conversations like this, um, open dialog, um, uh, are definitely making, helping make some, some progress along the way. So we really appreciate you both taking the time to, to speak with us today, um, about this. Um, if listeners want to learn more from you, or connect with you both in any way, what’s the best way for them to do that?

Anne Ackerson:                    I think probably uh, through our blog, LeadershipMatters1213 and the attendant email there, which is Joan, did you have a-

Joan Baldwin:                       Yeah, well and I would also say, just briefly, we’ve started an organization called Gender Equity in Museums, and it has its own um, its own webpage all one word. And that page has a wealth of information about these issues.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Great, we’ll drop links to both of, uh, to all of that in, in the show notes. Joan and Anne, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today, it was really, really great.

Anne Ackerson:                    Thank you.

Joan Baldwin:                       Thank you, it was a pleasure (music)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      nikhil trivedi is an application developer at a museum in Chicago and a social justice activist. His activism work focuses on ending rape culture and patriarchy through his role as a volunteer educator for rape victim advocates. He is also a regular contributor at the Incluseum. Co-creator of, and his writing has been featured in Modelview Culture, and Forward Museums. You will also find him playing his guitar and sitar, composing noise, hiking, making herbal medicines, and drinking warm glasses of Chai on cold winter night. nikhil, thanks so much for being a guest this, this month.

nikhil trivedi:                        Of course, thanks so much for having me.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      We’re so glad that, that you’re a guest, uh, for this episode. But, nikhil, when we first approached you to, to be a guest, um, talking about um the concept of the gendered museum, you were a bit hesitant. Um, and conveying, you know, some, some just hesitation about being a guest. What, why was that?

nikhil trivedi:                        Well, I mean, I was super honored that you guys asked me to be on your show. I’m a big fan of your work and I was excited about the opportunity to be on your show, particularly about this topic, but it felt weird being a man talking about gender oppression. Because, I know it’s critical for men to be active in dismantling patriarchy, but this is generally a space that I’m careful and thoughtful about the space that I take up. And I usually step back to give room to voices that are typically silenced by sexism and male domination.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

nikhil trivedi:                        So, I think, you know, I just kind of wanted to say, right at the top, that as a [inaudible 00:36:19] gender, straightish man, speak, I want to speak to other men, from my own experience through our conversation today, and I feel like I can share my observations about gender oppression, as it’s targeted toward women, fem or gender non-conforming people, but I can’t, and I won’t speak for those people or their experiences. Um, and also, just um, one last thing. I don’t think there’s anything that I’m going to say, that probably hasn’t already been said, by a woman or a fem, or non-conforming person before me. Um, so I just want to recognize that.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, it’s interesting. I mean when we, when Jeffrey and I were first talking about this, uh, this show and, and this concept of the gendered museum, um, for me, I really wanted to dig into this subject in, a, a bigger way, so not just talking about gender oppression, although that is obviously part of that, and, and the other guests that we’ve got on this episode. We, we dig into that a little bit. Um, but for me, it, it was actually really important that we talk about the implications of gender on our institutions and, and how we think about the middle. So what it means for, for us say, if we have an imbalanced sector, what that does to our say, to our pay as a sector, what that does to um, even the sorts of stories we tell and how we related to audiences, so for me, it was actually really important that we were not just relegating this as sort of the um, the women’s issue show. Or, or, or something that was sort of limited. I was actually trying to get to some of these bigger discussion.

So, yes to talk to, um oppression as it relates to gender, and that’s definitely not just around women either. And that was important as well, though we have multiple voices, but also that we can get to, I think, um, some of the bigger questions, and, and one of the reasons I was really interested in having you, is you’ve done a lot of work yourself around gender constructs, and around contemporary notions of masculinity. And particularly as they relate to technology. And we, we’ve recently, we uh witnessed, some big conversations around this topic, being around say controversial um, the, the Google Anti-diversity Manifesto, which came about a couple of weeks ago. It was made public in August, which really argued against the organization’s diversity initiatives. And it was ultimately leading the male author of the piece to be fired. And, this is, this is one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you is, is you’ve done a lot of thinking about this area yourself, within your own work, and it makes me really wonder how you see gender and masculinity playing into technology work. Uh, yourself as, as a technologist. Um, and then we’ll, we’ll discuss, go a little bit further into how that starts to relate to the museum.

nikhil trivedi:                        Yeah, I mean that Google letter, damn. (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    Right.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      That was crazy.

nikhil trivedi:                        Yeah, I mean, there are so many pieces of that letter that we could probably have lengthy conversations about, and I feel like we can’t really talk about the gender piece of it, like you, like you mentioned, um, just now Suse, without talking about the race component of it right?

Suse Anderson:                    Right.

nikhil trivedi:                        I mean, I feel like the guy who wrote the letter, probably had cousins who didn’t speak up at Thanksgiving last year. You know what I mean? And you know, if this past year, you know, white folks have been thinking like how can they get involved in anti-racist work. Like talk to your cousins before they write a letter like this, you know.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

nikhil trivedi:                        Like you try to get through to your cousins. It’ll probably take, you know, a long time. You know, no changes really happen between people and within ourselves without it being a long, lengthy process in close relation to the people that we’re close to, so, so it’ll often feel like we’re not getting through to folks. It’ll feel like, you know hopeless and all that stuff, but like we just have to keep trying to get through to people otherwise, who’s going to?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative). nikhil, what, what do you think it is about the technology aspect of this? You know, I mean, Google’s just one example but, you know, you can basically look across the landscape of, of, of technology startups, like Uber right? Like, is there an epidemic you think? Like, in relating to technology work?

nikhil trivedi:                        Well, I mean if we, if we look at some of the things that are happening in the tech sector through the lens of power.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

nikhil trivedi:                        It’s not something that’s just isolated to technology. Right, a lot of um, economic power is uh located in a lot of large tech companies, and that results in a lot of leaders being white men, and a lot of the consolidation of power, looking a very specific way, while the workforce in a lot of cases also looks a very specific way. That’s not unique to tech, it’s not unique to museums, you know, if you look at fashion, and, um, the sort of distinction between designers and factory workers, or if you look at agriculture and the stereotypical image we have of old MacDonald, versus who we know historically have actually worked the fields.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Right.

nikhil trivedi:                        These, these dynamics aren’t unique to these sectors, and uh, I suppose you could call it an epidemic form that perspective, but I, I think there’s certainly a, it’s certainly gets exaggerated when power is increased to the degree that it is today in the tech world.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, I wonder how much of it is also a recency bias, as in say to, to go to museums, we also know that there is these sorts of um, these same imbalances playing out. But, in museums that have been established, uh, you know, institutionally for long periods of time, whereas we’re talking with a lot of these tech companies of reasonably new companies. And so we’re maybe able to see um, the effects of this in a far more magnified and dramatic way?

nikhil trivedi:                        I mean, the companies and the technology is recent, but innovation isn’t new. You know, like tech is sort of an extension of um, you know, the innovations that resulted in uh, electricity, and um, mechanical stuff. I mean, I, I obviously don’t know much about that sort of thing. But, it’s an extension of, of a much longer history that I, I think we um, often don’t um, don’t look to, for our roots, past the mid-90s, uh, maybe the mid-80s. Um, and I, and I think going back to the, to the letter, um, the Google anti-diversity letter, you know, it, it looks at gender, in really binary ways. You know, he um, he, he makes distinct and universal categories of men and women that have identical interests and desires and have never changed over time.

Suse Anderson:                    Right.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Right.

nikhil trivedi:                        And of course, that’s not really how people actually are. So when we talk about masculinity, masculinities in particular, like masculinity is also not a distinct universal category. Um, it’s not a universal trait. Masculinity’s varied by race, by class, by gender, by sex orientation, by geographical regions of the world, or even of a city, you know. Um, so I think it’s important to make a distinction, um, between people, between uh, masculinities that are expressed by people as individuals. And masculinity as a construct of learned thoughts and behaviors that enforce patriarchy through the domination of women. And across many expressions of masculinity, across masculinity in many communities, I think here in the United States in particular, because that’s where I’ve spent my whole life, I think I’ve seen commonalities across a lot of those, um, expressions of masculinity. And I think it’s important to talk about that more broader sense of masculinity than it is about the individual level.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

nikhil trivedi:                        Particularly in this case.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      So, in, in Google’s response to the memo, um, their Vice President of Diversity, Integrity, and Governance, um, Danielle Brown, said, uh “Changing a culture is hard, and it’s often uncomfortable.” Um, and I think anyone doing progressive museum work knows that, you know, much of the time, change comes down to, to culture, um, culture change. So, I’m wondering, what you think about, um, some specific actions that we can take as museum professionals? Um, within our own institutions to, to make them more supportive of gender equality, um, um, both as places that, that we work in as colleagues, but then also, um, as places that, that people visit. And people, places that people um, uh, find comfortable and, and, and uh welcoming.

nikhil trivedi:                        Yeah, I mean, I think if I could sort of distill it down to one that’s kind of broad framework, to think about this stuff in, I would suggest that, and again speaking to, to other men, listening to your show as a man myself. I think we could … A framework we can use is thinking about um, dismantling rape culture in our lives, and at work. A, a useful definition of rape culture, that Roxane Gay provides in her book Bad Feminist, is a culture where we’re inundated in different ways by the idea that male aggression and violence towards women is acceptable and often in evitable. And violence can look a lot of different ways. There’s a great image, um, by Ashley Fairbanks, that draws out a pyramid of violence, where at the base of it is sexists, and homophobic, and transphobic jokes, problematic languages, and then as problematic language, and as you go up the pyramid, um, you know it goes to [inaudible 00:47:19] stereotypes, um, traditional gender roles, harassment, rape, and murder. And, I think at the root of all violence towards women, is an erasure of women’s lives, and I think there’s a lot of ways in which this plays out, in tech, and in tech in museums in particular.

Um, I think pay inequity is a huge part of that. Right? It is really well documented that men are paid more than women for doing the same work, but I think it also plays out in how work is distributed. We talked about how management is often men, and in museums, workers are mostly women. But I think, it, it also, we also see, uh, distributions between uh designers and developers. There’s, I don’t have data on this, but from my sort of anecdotal um, experience working as a developer for 20 some odd years, um, I’ve seen many more women designers, and front end designers, than I’ve seen backend server side jobs. And those are the jobs that pay more than designers and front end developers. And when, um, women do get development jobs, they’re often not treated as nearly as competent as their male counterparts, because much like the letter, this distinction plays into the trove that men are more analytical, and women are more creative, and when, when people move outside of those really distinct categories, they’re not taken as seriously then. You know, I think, they have to go over many more hurdles just to get the same amount of work done than a man has to go through.

Um, and it really sells us short. Because that erases, it erases our adaptability as creatures who live on this planet. You know, over the course of the history of this globe, humans and creatures have adapted to so many variant situations, as the climate has changed to, in so many different ways. Um, in nature, there’s so many examples of, um animals expressing, um genders that they weren’t born with. Like, female lions can grow manes, if they’re put in a position of leadership within their tribe. Like female lions can, can grow manes, you know what I mean. And so like-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Wow.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

nikhil trivedi:                        A woman can’t be a competent back end developer, like that’s just completely ridiculous and goes against everything we know about, about humans, people, and this entire planet. So pay inequity, I think is a big thing. We see it in a few different ways. And two other things, uh, that I think we can kind of break it down to is entitlement and the ability for men to speak and be heard.

Suse Anderson:                    Hmm.

nikhil trivedi:                        And entitlement, it plays out in a few different ways as well. Um, especially in museums, where the vast majority of our internal users, of the applications and the, the awesome tools we build, our women, this plays out in defining what our scope is during project planning or calling a project finished without implementing a full set of features [inaudible 00:50:25] for the sake of expediency, but often at the cost of complicated work arounds, and continued follow up from end users, and things like that. But also plays out in um, what can be seen as much more smaller ways. Like, being slow to respond to emails, or not keeping our spaces tidy, or, or not, not participating and keeping our shared spaces tidy, like kitchens, and bathrooms, because people do have to clean up those spaces. Not taking care of administrative stuff, like submitting our expense reports in a reasonable amount of time, or forwarding invoices where I wouldn’t get them.

There’s a lot of general ways in which um, the sense of entitlement can play out. Um, and I think that’s another way that, we sort of see masculinity in this problematic dynamic of power, play out in our relationships to people in the workplace. Um, and finally the general notion of speaking and being heard, and accredited for things that come out of our mouths. That, that doesn’t quite answer your question of what are specific things that we can do, but I think um, before we get into that, it’s important to kind of give some context of what it is that we’re responding to, by our actions.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, absolutely. I think one of the things, and you were just starting to touch on this when talking about um say the different value around designers, um, versus say back end developers. One of the concerns, I think we often talk about, when we talk about the dominance of masculinity or men working in technologies, thinking about the decisions of which problems to solve, and the solutions that are then found, which then tend to favor the much narrower subset of um, of possible users or of actual users. You know, I, I remember um, in about 2014, there were a number of articles that were talking about how smart phones at the time, were really being designed for male hands. There was a, a woman uh, I’ll try to remember her name and put it in the show notes, but she was writing quite a bit around how she actually couldn’t use the smartphone she was trying to, to document certain things, because her hands were not big enough to take a photograph and hold the phone at the same time. And she was having these really, sort of big concerns about this understandably, because it was the first time, she was sort of, uh, coming to, to have that articulation in a physical sense.

And this is obviously one of the reasons we make an argument for having diverse teams. In order to bring in multiple perspectives and solve problems more equitably. But, it makes me wonder when your sort of talking about say, um, that, that accountability within the museum, about what we choose to work on, and, and how we do that about the roles within the museum. One, one of the concerns then that come out of the fact that certain roles in museums do tend to be gendered, that we do have power accumulating in um, some part of the museum, and not others, that, that impacts pay, say education roles are often female, and lower paid. And, and of course, then you have front of house staff, and so on, which also then brings often in race issues.

nikhil trivedi:                        Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah, I mean, it, I’m not familiar with that, um, article that you mentioned, that’s really interesting. I’m not particularly surprised by it, because you know, if, you know, a decision trickles up to a leader about you know, a design question, um, I’m not particularly surprised that, that those design decisions would be slanted towards what would be most convenient for men. Right, because like, offices are so cold, because uh, men in three piece suits get really hot, you know, but women are, traditionally not asked to wear the same dress code, they just have to deal with how cold the offices are. Uh, so there’s a lot of different ways, I think that we can name how, um, that uh, how the imbalance of leadership kind of trickles down to um, spaces and the products we build not really working for everybody. And I think part of the challenge is like building software is expensive. And until, until leaders come to see that it’s, it’s actually more valuable to create products that um, work well for a wider range of people, than it is to, to make them quickly, and as cheaply, relatively, right, as possible. Um, we’re going to continue to see these sorts of things. So, it’s a reflection of where our values lie in the process of designing the products that we build, and that we’re asking our visitors to use. And that we use every day.

Suse Anderson:                    The museum sector is in its hiring practices, also skewing, uh, as white women, and so are we creating a self-reinforcing culture of only being able to um, think of and appeal to the same audiences that we have traditionally held through those hiring practices?

nikhil trivedi:                        Hmm, I have never really thought of it that way. Yeah, I mean, because in my experience, you know, with the Visitors of Color project, I’m talking to a bunch of people who for the most part aren’t older, white women.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Right, right.

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

nikhil trivedi:                        So, my, my perspective of who visits museums, and who, um, you know, uses our products, who are typical sort of use cases in my mind is a lot different than that. But, um, but certainly I can see this sort of cyclical um, this cycle, that you’re, that you’re supposing might happen, if we, if our staff is so reflective of who our typical visitor is. But, I mean, I guess I would just challenge, you know, like there’s probably a lot of data saying like, “Yes, um the majority of our users fit these specific demographic categories.” But, like what’s the full story? [crosstalk 00:56:58] I feel like the numbers, you know, can only tell you one small piece of what you see when you walk through the galleries, or what, you know, what makes and impact for a particular person when they leave our doors. Um-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      nikhil, how can museums, start to [inaudible 00:57:14] that full story? You know, what are some ways that, you know that, that museums can start to um, become aware of the full story?

nikhil trivedi:                        Well, I mean coming back to the question that I didn’t quite answer before. Um, you know, using the framework of dismantling rape culture in our lives and in our work, I think there’s, you know, I, I put this question out on Twitter, um, a few weeks ago. And I’d love to put in [Storyfi 00:57:49] and share it in your show notes if I [crosstalk 00:57:50]-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Oh yeah, for sure.

nikhil trivedi:                        If I can use pie cast lingo for a second (laughter)

Suse Anderson:                    Absolutely.

nikhil trivedi:                        But, um, you know, like if I can borrow the phrase think local, or think global, act local. You know, dismantling rape culture in our own lives is a tangible way of participating in, in the global fight to end rape and all gender based violence. And based on, like the things that I’ve heard from people in my own life over the course of many years, in addition to the things that people um, on Twitter suggested, like there’s four things that I think um, we can put our minds towards. Uh, to try to do this work within museums.

Um, the first thing is to listen to women. Just listen to women. Ask for their input and listen to it. Um, as little Miss Fergus said on Twitter. Um, let them finish speaking as Claire Blechman said. And um, in um at museums in the web in 2014, um, there was a, a session on women in technology and leadership, and one of the things that, three years ago, that they suggested men do is acknowledge when you’re saying something that women before you have already said. And we saw, we saw something in the um, by the women’s staff, in Obama’s administration, um, that they were doing to sort of amplify the perspectives of, of women on his staff, and I think they called it amplification. And it was like, it was a, a thing that they did in group meetings, and staff meetings, where when a woman made a key point, other women in the group would repeat that same point, and give them credit. As a way to amplify, literally um the voiceless women of the room. And I think, as men sort of recognizing when we’re saying something that a woman has already said, even if it’s like five minutes after they said it, in a meeting, um, just naming and giving credit to the person who um, who said that thing.

Because this is one small way of erasing women’s lives, right? And by giving voice and giving credit to the person who, who said it before us, we’re slowly working on, on erasing those lives. Um, part of listening to women, we can take a beat before we speak and make sure that other voices at the table have had a chance to speak. Um, when, when I facilitate workshops, we often put this common agreement out there to step up and step back, where if you’re a person who tends to speak a lot, um try to take a beat and step back, and uh, you know, one rule that sometimes people keep in their mind is to let two other people speak before I speak. And on the opposite side of it, step up, if you’re a person who um, doesn’t often speak in group situations, be brave, try to challenge yourself, and share your thinking, because no one in the universe has the same intersections of identities as you do, and therefore will not have the same perspectives and thoughts as you, and we value them, so please share them.

So, I, I think, you know, if you’re a man who tends to need to step back, take that as an opportunity to step back and listen to women. And I think, um, one last piece about listening to women, Anna [Coster 01:01:23] said um, “Pay attention to the meetings women aren’t in.” And I think that begs for the hashtag, #allmalemeetings, as kind of a riff on all male panels. Um, pay attention, pay attention to meetings where they’re all men, and ask whether we should be having them.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, it’s interesting, uh, it goes to that, that final point of you know, who’s in the room, goes back to again that question we were just talking about around who’s designing the products, and who’s deciding which problems to solve. You know, deciding which is the problem that this, that your institution should be addressing, whether it’s which app should we create? Or which exhibition should we, we do? Um, I think they’re the same thing of who’s in the room, and who’s actually making those decisions. Um, nikhil, we are just about to, to wrap up, but there’s a question that I really wanted to ask. Um, as you, as you know, this episode, we uh, we are doing this question around the gendered museum to coincide with the impending birth of my child. And so I’ve been thinking a lot about um, how becoming a mother and a parent is going to impact my career. But I think we talk a lot less about parenthood and how it impacts uh, fathers or other caretakers who’ll be looking after small children. Um, you became a father a few years ago, and I’d really love to just hear how its impacted your museum work and the way you think about your career and the way you think about how you’re addressing these kind of issues?

nikhil trivedi:                        Yeah, I mean, I mean, I’m so excited about … Happy Labor Day by the way. We just, uh, it’s the week after Labor Day right now.

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs) Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, I was wondering if it’s going to be the other sort of Labor Day for a little while there, but uh-

nikhil trivedi:                        (laughs) It’s still labor nonetheless. Um, but yeah, I mean, I think parenting was such an interesting um, way to think about some of this stuff. When my partner and I were pregnant, we were trying to think about how to equally distribute care taking duties, between the two of us. Um, as we were preparing to have a baby, as well as afterwards. And, my partner gave birth, she, she nursed, uh, so there were certainly things that I couldn’t take the equal share of, but um, in the ways that I could, we uh, we both were reduced our work down to part-time for the first period of his life. Uh, as a way for us to both kind of keep continuing working and being home with our kiddo, because we didn’t want one of us to be working full time and the other to be home, because we both valued our jobs. We both valued our careers, and we wanted to do both. So for the first year and a half of my kids life, I worked part-time, and I feel super grateful to my institution for giving me that flexibility, and I also kind of feel … I’m super grateful to my boss, and my boss’s boss, and um, yeah, I’ve worked there for 12 years, or 11 years or something like that. So I built really close relationships to the people who supervise me.

So not to sort of say anything bad about them, but I, I do feel like I probably wouldn’t have been given as much flexibility if I were a woman to ask for the same thing. I, I think men are generally given a lot more flexibility with you know work schedules and with … Particularly on parenting, you know, women have such a hard time taking time off when their kids are sick. Or, you know, doing the sorts of things that um, that we think about, you know, being around for our kid when they’re having a hard time, or when we just want to be with them. Um, women have a lot more pressure to sort of like perform at work and not let parenting get in the way of their careers. And, men I feel like, when we do ask for stuff, it’s sort of seen as like, “Oh, that’s great, you should totally do that.” You know, we’re given a lot more freedom, and flexibility to stuff like that. So, I recognize that, and I sort of felt like, you know maybe if I could figure this out, maybe that would open up a little bit of space for someone else in my institution to work out something similar. You know, if I can try to maybe set a precedence for someone else to lean on.

If they were trying to ask for some flexibility or try to figure something else out. But that was just an amazing period of my life. Just to be home with my kiddo, two days a week. Just me and him. I got to see, I got to see a lot of first things that he did. Um, we got to just build a really close relationship with each other, that I wouldn’t have been able to do if I was working full time. And that was something that was important to me, because um, my relationship with my own father, has not been a close one of the course of my life. So, I wanted, um, it was important to me to do what I, to do as much as I felt like I could do to make sure that I was building a close bond with my kiddo and sustain that, um, over the course of my life. And that year and a half certainly built a great foundation for us.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      That sounds so awesome.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, that’s really amazing.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (laughs) Um, nikhil, I think, uh, we’ve taken enough of your time away from that beautiful family, so um, we’re going to wrap up, but before we do, we’ll drop links to everything we talked about in the show notes, but if listeners want to get in touch with you, um, Twitters the best place? Where can they do that?

nikhil trivedi:                        Twitter’s the best place, um, you can also uh, drop me an email on my website, um, but I’m on Twitter. Twitter’s probably the best place.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Sounds good. Uh, nikhil thanks again so much. I think this discussion has been really great. It’s going to um, uh, hopefully shine some interesting light on this, on this topic, so thank you so much for your openness.

nikhil trivedi:                        Yeah, thank you, I feel like there’s probably so much more that all three of us could say, regarding all this stuff, um, but it was great to try to put my mind towards this, um, for this episode and thanks for having me. (music)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Okay Suse, uh, some great interviews there.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, absolutely, there is so much to dig into as always I think on this. On this show, I always find myself going in different directions, and it was so nice to hear from Anne, Joan, and nikhil, and get really different perspectives on these issues.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, um, and nikhil actually sent through um, uh, uh, some resources that we’ll post in, in the show notes, um, in case listeners want to dig a little bit deeper. Um, uh, get a little bit more informed about any of this, um, what we’ll post, all his, his links and resources um, at Um, Suse, if uh listeners want to connect with us on the Twitters, can they do that?

Suse Anderson:                    Uh, they can definitely do that and in fact, we would welcome that. If you want to connect with us on the Twitters, uh, we are just @Museopunks and uh, of course, you know our website We also have to thank our presenting sponsor who always supports us and does so wonderfully. We are presented every month by the American Alliance of Museums and we are very grateful for that support.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Thank you AAM. Uh, one last thing before we wrap it up.

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative) .

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Um, reviews on iTunes, if you like us, if you listen to us, um, reviews on iTunes help immensely with discoverability, so we would really appreciate a, a star, a star rating, or a, or if you have the time and inclination, uh, tell people what you think about the podcast.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, absolutely. It, it also helps to tell us what you think about the podcast. We are always welcome to hear your ideas and to think about how we can incorporate them into the show ourselves.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      For sure. Suse, another episode in the can.

Suse Anderson:                    In the can. Fantastic, Jeffrey, uh, by the time we [inaudible 01:09:58] next speak, I may, may have a little kid, so uh, I look forward to the adventures that, that holds.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (laughs) Well will she be the first guest?

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs) If we can manage to uh corral her into uh making noise at the right time and not the wrong time, sure.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (laughs) All right, Suse, we’ll be uh, we’ll be following along, good luck, and enjoy your first uh days of motherhood.

Suse Anderson:                    Ah, okay, bye.


Anne W. Ackerson
Photo of Anne Ackerson
Little did Anne know when she began her first museum job she would discover a passion that would fuel her work for a lifetime. Anne served as director of several historic house museums and historical societies in central and eastern New York, before becoming the director of the Museum Association of New York. She currently serves the Council of State Archivists as its executive director and is an independent consultant focusing on the organizational development issues of the smaller cultural institution. Anne writes regularly about management and leadership issues for cultural institutions in her blog, Leading by Design. Her article about the status of heritage organizations in New York State, “The History Museum in New York State: A Growing Sector Built on Scarcity Thinking”, was published in the Summer 2011 issue of the journal, Public Historian. A short essay, “Local Historical Societies and Core Purpose”, appears in the Encyclopedia of Local History, published by AltaMira Press and AASLH in 2013.  You can find Anne on Twitter @leadingbydesign.

Joan H. Baldwin
Photo of Joan BaldwinA Maryland native, Joan Baldwin served as director for several house museums, a staffer for the Museum Program at the New York State Council on the Arts, and the Director of Education and Interpretation at Hancock Shaker Village. She met Anne Ackerson while working as a consultant, a friendship that led to a decade-long collaboration during Anne’s tenure at the Museum Association of New York [MANY]. While writing for MANY Baldwin authored three monographs (on mission, hiring and developing staff and volunteers, and responsible relationship-building for corporate philanthropy); three white papers (two on next generation leadership and succession planning in New York state’s museums); and a variety of shorter field reports. Her articles, “Who’s Next? Research Predicts Museum Leadership Gap”, was published in the journal Museum Management and Curatorship (MMC) in 2006, and “Who’s Next: Museum Succession Planning in New York” was published in History News in Autumn 2007. Baldwin is currently the Curator of Special Collections at The Hotchkiss School.

nikhil trivedi
Photo of nikhil trivedinikhil trivedi is an application developer at a museum in Chicago and a social justice activist. His activism work focuses on ending rape culture and patriarchy through his role as a volunteer educator for Rape Victim Advocates. He is also a regular contributor at The Incluseum, co-creator of, and his writing has been featured in Model View Culture and Fwd: Museums. You will also find him playing his guitar and sitar, composing noise, hiking, making herbal medicines, and drinking warm glasses of chai on cold winter nights.


Show Notes

Leadership Matters

nikhil’s resource document

It’s a Man’s Phone

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Museopunks is presented by the American Alliance of Museums.
Twitter: @museopunks

Episode 22: Human Behavior

Museums that want to impact their visitors are often concerned with changing their behaviors. However, before any kind of change can take place, it’s important to understand visitors, and the behaviors that they bring into the museum with them. In this episode, the ‘Punks ask how museums can better understand and align their work around existing visitor behaviors. We talk to the first Neuroscience Researcher in an art museum to learn more about how the human brain understands the physical world, and how that connects to our emotions, and then connect with an experience designer whose work has focussed on social media use in the cultural sector.

We also want to know: are you a museum geek who is also a fan of professional wrestling?! Reach out to us on Twitter and let us know.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      That wasn’t too awkward, was it? Suse-

Suse Anderson:                    Hey Jeffrey.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      What’s going on?

Suse Anderson:                    Not much. It is a warm, warm, uh, day here in Baltimore, and I am sitting sweltering in my home because I have realized I can never put, um (laughs) I can never put a fan on when we’re recording because my microphone is too powerful.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      I-I know. I shut off my A/C and so-

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      It’s a little, little hot in here.

Suse Anderson:                    A little steamy.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      What’s that like that Nelly song?

Suse Anderson:                    (laughing) You wanna break into some song now Jeffrey?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      I don’t know. I will say though we have to not record on Monday nights because you’re cuttin’ into my WWE Wrestling time.

Suse Anderson:                    Ah, tell me about it. I had just been watching a couple of, uh, great, uh, great matches, the women’s match tonight was pretty fantastic.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, so, uh, yeah, tell me about it … Who knew that, uh, we were both into a little bit of wrestling?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      There’s a museum and professional wrestling, uh, connection here, uh, somewhere, I’m sure.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Listen-listeners, I’m sure other listeners, um, are into, uh, wrestling and, um, if you, if you are, hit us up. Let us know.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah. I, I’m, I’m less confident than you are actually Jeffrey. I have asked about this a couple of times on Twitter, and the answers have been few and far between, and in fact, when I’ve been at, say, professional gatherings like conferences and mentioned my, uh, my, my wrestling interests … Crickets.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Really?

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Unbelievable.

Suse Anderson:                    People do not understand and, you know, it’s, it’s one of the great storytelling, uh, platforms of our time-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    Some might say.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      I think museums can learn a lot from the compelling narratives that take place, um, a-at … Through WWE.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah. I agree.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Who’s your favorite wrestler?

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs) Ah, that’s a tough call. I, I, I’m, I’m pretty partial to some of the, some of the women’s division wrestlers such as, uh, Sasha Banks-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:                    And, uh, Becky Lynch, I have to say. They’re pretty good, and then you have some really fabulous heels, a term you might have to explain, like, uh-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    Chris Jericho who, uh-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    I’m a big fan of. (laughs) What about yourself?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      I’m a Bray Wyatt guy.

Suse Anderson:                    Oh!

Jeffrey Inscho:                      I like the, I like the cre-, I like the creepy ones, the ones with some, some deep dark-

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Backgrounds.

Suse Anderson:                    So, should we, should we explain to people what, what a face and a heel is-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    If they’re not familiar?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Go ahead.

Suse Anderson:                    (laughing) Um, so wrestling is, as I say, one of the great storytelling spaces, platforms of, I think, our time, and one of the ways it plays with these big meta-narratives is having very clear, um, people to cheer for and people to boo.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:                    In, in a simple, in a simple sense, and so a face, a baby face is, uh, someone that you cheer for that you love, someone who, uh, does the right thing more often than not. And a heel is the opposite. A heel is someone who will, uh, win by dirty tricks and that you … It can enjoy, uh, cheering against them anything they come onstage. Does that, does that, does that sum it up?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      It does. And the moral of this story is that museums out there, you got to be the face.

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs) Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Right? Anyway, enough wrestling, on to, on to Museopunks Episode 22. How you, uh, what are we talking about tonight?

Suse Anderson:                    So, tonight we’re talking about museum visitor behavior, but really about the behaviors that visitors come into our museums with. This started from, uh, some interesting research that you’d been doing actually, Jeffrey, and you published not that long ago-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    Talking about, um, phone use in museums. Can you tell us a little bit more about the work that you were doing?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Um, yeah, sure, so at the studio at Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, uh, like I talked about in an episode earlier where we’re building a chat bot, which, um, is an artificial intelligence, um, bot that visitors could, um, or will be able to interact with over SMS text messaging-

Suse Anderson:                    Hmm.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      And we wanted to base all of our design decisions on real world data, uh, and we wanted to align those decisions with the behaviors that we’re h-, we thought were happening in-

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Our galleries. We had a, we had a pretty good, good inclination that yes, people were bringing phones. Yes, people did not really make use of existing museum apps, and yes, people sent text messages and felt comfortable sending text messages, so we did a, um, several week study of several hundred museum-

Suse Anderson:                    Hmm.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Visitors, and um, found out some interesting results, um, and those results are now informing our design decisions as we develop this chat bot over the next couple months.

Suse Anderson:                    It’s r-, it’s really great. It was a really interesting paper to read, and we will obviously include a link in the show notes. I think one of my, um, favorite stats from that, uh, although not a surprising one was how, uh, few, uh, visitors have museum apps on their phones.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, and you know, it’s I think one of-, you know, one of the things I’m looking forward to talking to Alli Burness or one of our two guests about is, you know, figuring out a way that we can start to create data sets across the sectors because I could, I would only assume-

Suse Anderson:                    Mmm.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      That my data in Pittsburgh, very kind of regional market, not a lot of tourists varies, v-very much from, say, New York museums or London museums, so, um, while, you know, it’s … Our data is very important to us as we build our experience, it would be interesting to kind of start to compare some of this data with other museums if they sh-, if they do do this type of research.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah. Absolutely, I mean there’s always benefit in being able to see very much what applies to your own institution but also for us to start to see trends across the sector in, in where those differences lie.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah. So, like I said, we’re talking with Alli Burness, um, who, um, has a museum background but has, has been making a transition outside of the sector to, um, to, um, the, the larger experience design field, um-

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah. And she’s done some really interesting work over the last few years around how visitors are using their devices, particularly around things like selfies in museums and how visitors are using Instagram and social sharing and what they’re sharing in museums.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Definitely valuable stuff, and uh, but first we’re gonna talk to Dr. Tedi Asher who is, um, I believe the first neuroscience, uh, researcher, uh, at a museum, at The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts-

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah. I am so excited about this. I … Areas of … I am not a scientist. I am not … I have never-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    Trained formally in any of the, you know, major sciences, but I find, I find science in all its dimensions fascinating and the idea of neuroscience, of digging into how humans process behavior, how the brain works, how the body works and how they all work together is fascinating to me. I am so excited for this interview.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah. Me too, so let’s get to it. Dr. Tedi Asher is a neuroscience researcher at The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. The position, which marks the first for an art museum, supports the museum’s neuroscience initiative and is made possible through a generous grant from The Bar Foundation. Dr. Asher earned her PhD from Harvard Medical School’s Biological and Biomedical Sciences program and has spent the last 12 years gaining experience in a wide range of fields, including neuroscience and psychology. At The Peabody Essex Museum, she will synthesize neuroscience research findings and make recommendations on how museums can enhance and enrich the visitor experience.

Tedi, thanks so much for being a guest on Museopunks.

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Thanks for having me.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Oh, uh, our pleasure. So, um, Tedi, you, yours is the first neuroscience position in an art museum, but before we get too deep into your work at the museum, could you just tell us a little bit about what neuroscience is and the kind of research that falls under its purview?

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Sure. Um, well the way, the way that I think of the term “neuroscience” as kind of an umbrella, um, that spans a number of different disciplines, so you can have, um, you know, the study of human behavior that falls more into the psychology realm or, um, cognitive neuroscience where you might do some neuro imaging of the human brain all the way down to the cellular level and molecular level using animal models to study gene expression and cellular mechanisms-

Suse Anderson:                    Hmm.

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      In the, in, in, in neurons.

Suse Anderson:                    So, with such a wide range then of, of such terms that, that this covers all, all areas of science that this covers, what aspects of this have you been bringing to PEM and how does this kind of research apply to an art museum?

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Sure, so, um, this, this job has been a bit of a transition for me. I’ve always worked in animal models studying the brain-

Suse Anderson:                    Hmm.

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Um, but this, this position, um, gives me the opportunity to really delve into the human literature, so I’m sort of focused at that end of the spectrum, um, and you know, we’re, we’re interested in researching all kinds of topics pertaining to attention and visual and auditory perception, um, and wayfinding, so navigating through a, a localized space, um, so I’m researching all of these different kinds of topics and bringing what I find to, into meetings, um, so that we can collaborate and try and extrapolate from those basic findings to how they can be applied in the galary.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      So, I mean it seems like your, your, your view of the museum is, is, is intentionally kind of holistic, right? Everything from like, uh, you know, wavefinding and space navigation to the more conceptual aspects, so who do you work most closely with at the museum? And can you talk-

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Sure, um-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      A little bit … Can you talk a little bit about how that position was, was created or, or what area of the museum, um, kind of brought you in?

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Sure. Uh, so I kind of float (laughs) is the way that I see it. Um, so PEM takes a very team-based approach to designing expeditions-

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Um, and I’m part of some of those teams, so any given team will have a curator, an interpretor, a designer, a project manager, you know, so there are all of these different roles, and for the teams that I’m on, there’s also a role of neuroscientist. (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs)

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Um, so that’s, that’s basically how I integrate into the structure here.

Suse Anderson:                    It’s a little bit wild. Uh, this actually sort of blows my mind thinking about the different types of positions and, and other ways that museums can be investigating, um, everything from how our brains are wired to appreciate art, which is something you’ve spoken about in one of your blog posts, as well as how we can use knowing more about these sort of things within expedition design and, and even sort of further out into the museum as well, not just looking at expeditions but other aspects of the museum design. Where do you even start such an investigation though? I mean how do you, how do you even start asking the right questions when you’re faced with a new expedition?

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Yeah, that’s a really good question. (laughs) Um, so I think we’re all still sort of figuring out how this works-

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Um, but basically the way that I come at it is I see, um, basically that there are two categories of influences on our perception. There are those influ-, influences that come from the so-called bottom up and those that come from the top down, so let me explain that a little bit.

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      So, what I mean by “bottom up influences” are those, um, factors that stem from the physicality of a stimulus, so its color or contrast or lighting, um, whereas by “top down”, I mean sort of more of an inside out influence, what associations do we have with a stimulus, what memories or emotions does a particular stimulus conjure, so either bottom up or top down influences can impact the nature of our experience. Um, so to me, it seems like our access to a visitor’s top down influences are mu-, is much harder to access-

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Right? Accessing their memories or their, you know, what they were just doing before they came in the museum, all of that is sort of sequestered from us, um, so I’ve started by focusing on the bottom up aspects, so one really clear example of that, I think, is learning about how visual system is structured to influence our perception.

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      I’m just kind of blown right now. (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    Me too.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Um (laughing)-

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      (laughing)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Uh-

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Did any of that make sense?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, no, it makes, it makes complete sense-

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Okay.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      And you know, it’s something that, that we, I-I don’t, you know, we … At my museum, we don’t have a neuroscience on staff, but we definitely are starting like to think about things in this way, in this way, um, and I’m wondering like how, like what kind of insights, if you can talk about any of it-

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Sure.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      What kind of insights or data that I-, you know, have you been generating and, and um, or, and, and incorporating into the design of an expedition or the way the museum is laid out-

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Sure.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      If you have, have you gotten to that point yet?

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Um, so you phrased the question in an interesting way that makes me think of two things-

Suse Anderson:                    Hmm.

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Um, you asked what kind of data we’re generating, and so, um, hopefully we will be generating data of our own, um, using various evaluation techniques, so um, once we create hypotheses about what kinds of, um, changes to expeditions, um, to, to, to make, we can implement them and then evaluate the effects, so that’s sort of one form of data collection that we’re in the process of starting. Um, but then I think what you’re asking is more about the findings from the literature that we draw on to inform expedition design?

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Yeah, so, um, there are lots of different kinds of data that we draw on, so just to start with something super simple, um, just to give you an example of the way that the structure of our visual system might impact choices that we make in the gallery, so, um, probably everyone is familiar with the idea that, um, the retina, the tissue in the back of your eye has two kinds of, um, cells that are sensitive to light, rods and cones, right?

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yep.

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      And so, cones can detect color whereas rods can detect just light and dark. Um, and so what’s interesting is that the cones tend to be centered in the middle of your eye whereas the rods tend to be clustered on the periphery of your eye, so what this means is that when we wanna see something in high detail and in color, we need to use the center of our vision-

Suse Anderson:                    Hmm.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      But when we’re trying to just detect brightness levels, it’s actually more effective to use our peripheral vision, which is why you may have noticed that stars actually appear brighter out of the corner of your eye than when you look directly at them.

Suse Anderson:                    Hmm.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Hmm. Okay.

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      So, this is a very simple, um, kind of elementary example of how learning about the biology of the visual system can help us figure out, well, where should we place this colorful object relative to the lighting or, you know, to, it help … Might help us to compose scenes within the gallery.

Suse Anderson:                    Hmm.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Cool.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, that’s amazing. (laughs) It also, I think, helps make sense … I was thinking about what you were saying about starting with sort of bottom up versus top down, and correct me if-

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:                    I’m wrong, I, I’m just trying to sort of get my head around this, would there be much more commonality with the bottom up experiences … So, thinking about the biology of the eye and how it takes in light versus the top down, which would be much more individualized if you’re looking at things like memory and experiences people are bringing into the, into the space?

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      That’s the hypothesis that I have, yeah, is that the bottom up systems, because they’re based in our sensory systems, which should have some common biology, that those are gonna be more common across cultures and across the population.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Interesting. So, one of the things we’re looking at in my museum is, um, aligning the experience with, um, with the behaviors that have, you know, um, been permeated throughout our culture recently, specifically new technologies, right? Like people are bringing these mobile devices with them and, um, and using them in the spaces, so could we optimize our experience to kind of align with those in interesting ways? Have, have, does any of this, any of, any of the techn-, technological developments or have these, have any of these technologies had impact on, on the way people think and process information in the museum in your opinion?

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Um, you know, I don’t know if I’ve had enough experience working in a museum yet to know that.

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      (laughs) Um-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah. Yeah.

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Yeah, I think from a neuroscience standpoint, um, I would imagine that it, it does change the nature of your experience, you know, to be acting with something digital versus something more analog that might be right in front of you. Um, but I, I feel like I haven’t quite been here long enough to observe enough to really have a definitive answer for that.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Sure. Do you think m-museums could be doing a better job of, of, um, sharing research in this area, like, you know, um, whether it be publishing evaluation data or, um, you know, you know, so that we can start to learn from each other? Would that be, in your opinion, a valuable, um, w-way that museums could-

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Absolutely.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Work together? Yeah.

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Cool.

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Yeah. Definitely. I think, uh, I mean it’s just my stance across the board that the more open and, uh, the more we can share information, the further we’re gonna go.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah. Absolutely. Uh, Tedi, I read that one of the ideas that sort of motivated bringing a neuroscientist into the museum was this desire to better understand how the human brain not just connects to the physical world but how that then connects to and feeds into our emotions, so I’m-

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    Really curious what you sort of anticipate the impact of the scientific or neuroscientific approach might be to the emotional aspects of the visitor experience.

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Yeah, that’s a really good question. Um, so I think that’s something that we’re very interested in figuring out. Um, there’s definitely data out there to suggest that, um, the more emotional an experience is, the, the better you’re going to remember it basically. Um, and I … There also seems to be some connection there between the emotionality of an experience and deriving meaning from it, um, and I say that more in an anecdotal way than in a data-based way, but um, so I think we’re really interested in gleaning what we can from the literature about how various changes to the physical environment can evoke emotion or can impact one’s emotional experience, um, in the hopes that that will help to create a more meaningful experience that, that visitors are likely to take with them when they leave the museum.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Hmm. This is such a progressive approach to experience in my opin-, in, you know, from my perspective. I’m wondering, uh, how more, how some of the more traditional, um, I’m trying to think of the best way to phrase this … How more of the, some of the more traditional museologists at PEM or-

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Throughout the sector may, um, uh, start to think about this, um … Uh-uh-I-I-I … Basically are, are curators receptive to this (laughs) in your opinion?

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Um, yeah, no I think everyone here at PEM at least, I haven’t had too much contact with museum professionals outside of PEM-

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Yet, um, but certainly here at PEM, everyone has been really welcoming and really open-minded. Um, when I first started, I met with each of the curators and sort of talked to them about how we could work together and what their approach, you know, in the past has been and what, how they envision it going forward. Um, I think there’s definitely, um, and with, you know, good reason, I think, not skepticism but-

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      You know, faith in the fact that curating in the, you know, with, without a neuroscience, um-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Perspective has been going on for many, many, many (laughs) years-

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs)

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      And you know, that it’s been productive and meaningful, and so I think there is some desire to not lose what that brings-

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Um but in, in my experience, people have been very open to what can be gained by incorporating a neuroscience perspective.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, and I think, I think definitely there’s value around, um, you know, talking about this type of approach, communicating it, again, sharing what this type of approach, the impact it can have on expeditions and programs in the museum and, um, you know, it’s, it’s completely fascinating-

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      In my opinion.

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    Tedi, I, I, I’m actually just … I-it … You’re really a pioneer in this. You, you are the first person certainly in an art museum that I know who is doing anything like this, uh, particularly in a permanent way. I’m sure there might’ve been some other short-term interventions. What, what do you hope to take out of this? Or what do you hope to, to achieve in bringing your own work and your own perspectives to this ’cause it’s not just the museum that … Although they, they sought this position out, it’s obviously not just them that are bringing, um, a desire for investigating to this. You must have your own thoughts and, and things that you’d really like to get out of this position.

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Yeah, um, well, I sort of see this position as an exploration, um, sort of personally and professionally, so this is my first job out of grad school. Um, it’s really my first job out of a lab. Um, and so I’m sort of exploring what can be done out in this great world-

Suse Anderson:                    Mmm.

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      (laughs) Um, without a pipette in hand. And, uh, but I think more conceptually speaking, you know, I’ve always had this really strong interest in trying to understand human emotional experiences, um, you know, where they come from and why they manifest as they do and why they affect us as they do.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Uh, and so I really am taking this as an opportunity to dive into the literature that’s relevant to that question, um, and really just glean as much as I can from it, um, and then apply it to something that has the a-, the potential to impact other people, which is really … Something that I was looking for in grad school was that kind of human element to my work-

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Um, so, I, I really see this as just a great exploration.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Well, I, I can only assume that the listeners of this podcast and, and many throughout the museum sector will find, uh, your work to be, um, as interesting and fascinating as Suse and I do, so I’m wondering, um, if, if there’s a, a way that people can, can follow you and follow your work at PEM, um, uh, where they might be able to do that?

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Yeah. So, right now, um, we’re not too outward facing about it yet-

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Um, but as part of the, the grant from The Bar Foundation, we will be putting together a publication, um, at some point.

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs)

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Great. Great.

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      And so, um, I hope that that will be accessible once it’s complete, um, and I can certainly keep you updated about where to find it.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, that would be fantastic.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Fantastic.

Suse Anderson:                    It might be really great for us to check back in with you when you are a little further along in your research as well and start to see … You know, this, this is a program in its, in its infancy, and it would be really nice to see how and where it develops and what that can start to mean for the sector longterm.

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Absolutely. Absolutely.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      It was so awesome talking with you today. Um, we really appreci-, appreciate you taking the time, and we look forward to really keeping up with you and watching what happens there at Peabody Essex.

Dr. Tedi Asher:                      Well, thank you. This has been really fun.

Suse Anderson:                    Alli Burness is currently an experienced designer with Think Place, a global strategic design consultancy that applies human-centered design and complex systems thinking to create public value. On the side, she’s a freelance digital producer designing digital presences for artists, small arts organizations and non-for-profits. She also researches, publishes, tutors, and speaks about the value of creative digital expression and social media use in the cultural sector. Alli previously worked in museums and galleries as a digital producer and collection manager for around 10 years. She’s created content for institutions such as The National Gallery of Art in the Was-, in Washington DC, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, The Welcome Collection in the UK, and The Powerhouse Museum and Museums, and Galleries of New South Wales in Australia.

She is now based in Sydney. Alli, welcome to the show.

Alli Burness:                           Thanks so much for having me. I’m a longtime listener, so very pleased to be invited.

Suse Anderson:                    It’s so exciting, and I have to say a little bit of a shout-out to home. It’s nice to be talking to someone back on the, uh, on the, uh, other side of the world back in Australia.

Alli Burness:                           Yeah. Over the [crosstalk 00:27:20].

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      I feel outnumbered here.

Suse Anderson:                    (laughing)

Alli Burness:                           (laughing)

Suse Anderson:                    Now you know how I usually feel Jeffrey.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    So, in this episode we’ve been talking about how museums can really better align their work with the behaviors that visitors bring into the gallery. Alli, you recently published a study with Kylie Budge looking at the way that museum visitors engage with objects through Instagram, the social media platform. Can you tell us a little bit about that study and your findings? Why do visitors to museums take photographs and share them on social media?

Alli Burness:                           Sure. Um, so yeah, I did, I did this research with Kylie Budge who at the time was the research manager at The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences here in Sydney, and so that includes The Powerhouse Museum. And another really key, um, member of our research team was Jim Fishwick who’s a program producer at the same museum. He’s also a freelance experience consultant and general immersive theater punk rock warlord, whatever we want to-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs)

Alli Burness:                           Response we wanna take. Um, so, um, in, in all the research that I do, I take a human centered and qualitative approach. I don’t have a quantitative or market research background. I’m always looking for motivations rather than what people are doing. I’m looking at why they do what they do. Um, and so in this particular piece of research, Kylie and I took one data set, and we took a, a case study approach. We looked at 400 images that was posted to one geotag on Instagram, uh, for one museum in one week. Um, we actually semi-automated that collection through, um, IFTTT, um, so, um, we were able to go in and, and click particular images and we removed the museum’s post from our data set. We really centered the visitor’s eye, and we just wanted to look at what visitors, um, were taking images of.

Um, that automated system isn’t possible anymore unfortunately since Instagram changed its API. Um, so that, that, with that first, um, with that data set, the first approach we took to analyzing that was through a visual analysis approach, um, so, we, we printed out each of those 390 to 400 images, stuck ’em up on the wall, and we grouped them into categories that organically emerged from the data set. Um, we looked at the images first and then referred to the captions if it helped to clarify, uh, what an, what an image might be focusing on or what its purpose might be.

And out of that, we had a, a range of categories, um, categories that had objects in them. It took up about 75% of the data set, um, and but these were kind of overlapping, so there were, um, categories that included people, and that might, um, be social happenings, selfies, that kind of thing, um, and they had about 45%, so you know, you can see that social inclusion and the social motivations for a visit is really manifesting in our images, um, but of course, we’re in buildings full of objects. That’s the prime purpose. It makes sense that objects are so present. Um-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, so A-Alli, when a museum does this, for example, say they mine posts that are happening on Instagram and other social media to kind of get a sense for what and why their visitors are, are posting-

Alli Burness:                           Mmm.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      How might they start to engage those people around, um, that content?

Alli Burness:                           Yeah, well, I think that’s the ultimate end goal for, for this research. Um, a few things we found about why, um, visitors were posting that we can build on. Uh, visitors were really enacting their own sense of agency by weaving themselves and their experience into the collection, the exhibition, the programming through their photography.

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Alli Burness:                           Um, we can see that in the captions. We could see that in the images. Um, and I mean our social media managers, uh, wander around with this intimate knowledge about our visitors are interpreting, um, our collections every day. It’s this data set that, that sits in our social media managers’ heads. Um, and you know, that, that’s something that is sitting pretty … It’s just this ripe opportunity to build on, um, and I think if we were to be ab-, we were able to build our social media managers and, and provide them with the resources to do similar studies … And, and I think the findings of this initial paper aren’t necessarily groundbreaking, but I think the method that is-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mmm.

Alli Burness:                           Is where the value is. Um, anyone can to … Can follow the same method, uh, and, and discover what it is visitors are doing and, and find insights for why they’re doing it in the data set that they are being given every day by their visitors.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      And, and think about also expanding that out beyond social media managers. Imagine the value, uh, that, you know, if a curator were given access to that or an educator were given access to that to see which objects and which, um, subjects are … People are resonating with. Right?

Alli Burness:                           Absolutely.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      I mean is that goal-

Alli Burness:                           But at the same time, as we have [inaudible 00:32:58] and visitor service offices on the floor of our museums who have a deep understanding every day of what visitors are doing physically in the museums, social media managers, uh-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Alli Burness:                           Have that comparable knowledge-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Alli Burness:                           And for them to work closely with programming staff, education staff, curator, that, that’s incredibly powerful. Social media’s … Media managers need time, professional development, and a team and, and, you know, that they’re there. The curators are there, can, you know, to co-design, um, some kind of response from their museum together. Um, that, that would be incredible. And I know Meghan Estep at The National Gallery of Art in DC has talked about this really, uh, compellingly about the idea of using our visitors as teachers-

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Alli Burness:                           And building on our visitors’ interpretations of our collections. So, what’s our response going to be? And I think, um, that’s, that, that’s … The answer’s still hanging. Um-

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, Alli, it’s interesting. You sort of mentioned that although this was a singular case study, the methods were actually really useful, and you think they could be more broadly applied. Are there any data sets that we have that do span the sector, or are there ways that we might be able to compare, say, tourist market museum behavior with regional behavior? A-are, uh, I guess what I’m really getting to … Are there ways that museums can begin to share their social data and collaborate around the sorts of work that you’ve been doing to analyze behavior across the sector rather than in an individual exhibition or an individual museum?

Alli Burness:                           Um, there’s hurdles in the sense that technologically it’s a challenge, and as I mentioned-

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Alli Burness:                           Instagram changed its API, which means it’s really hard to even semi-automate some data collection from it.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mmm.

Alli Burness:                           Um, that, that’s a real, uh, [inaudible 00:34:52] in the works for creating a similar data set again, let alone doing so across institutions, but I know there are people working on this, and, and I think, um, well, I, I presented … I was part of a panel at The Museum Computer Network Conference next year, and Chad Winard who … Talked about efforts to develop a process for ingesting data sets that might sit along and link with collection data. Um, so there are efforts there, and, and I know that, that, you know, museums do collect … Well, some museums do collect these huge data sets. Ryan Dodge from the Royal Ontario Museum has talked about having an enormous collection-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Alli Burness:                           Of this data that’s waiting to be interpreted and, and it’s certainly, um, a set that I’d be keen to sort of, um, you know, expand my own research into.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah. So, photography, now that we’re all walking around with, you know, incredibly powerful computers in our pockets, the thing, you know, one of the things, uh, most everybody does is obviously take photographs ’cause the cameras are getting better, the quality of the imagery is getting better, do you think that museums really have fully understood or even embraced the, the ways that visitors are starting to use these devices, like taking photographs or, you know, s-sending text messages and, and just the full capabilities that these little computers now offer us at any given moment.

Alli Burness:                           Yeah. Um, I think we’re getting there. Um, I think it’s a journey. I mean museums have this centuries long history that began well before digital technology. It, it, and that is now still being worked into the core processes of what museums do, and so it’s a journey that we’re on. Um, you know, we spend a lot of time thinking about how to use digital technology ourselves as an organization. Um, and then there’s this other question of, well, our visitors come in with these little computers in their pockets, what are they doing with them?

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

Alli Burness:                           You know, how do we leverage that as a separate question to what technology are we using internally? Um, so-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      It … Maybe I can rephrase the question.

Alli Burness:                           Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Do you feel that museums n-need to or should be aligning with these, uh, existing behaviors because or, or should, or should our experiences be meaningful enough that we can change the visitor experience or visitor behavior?

Alli Burness:                           I feel that, um, there’s a sweet spot that we should be aiming for, and it’s knowing what our mission is an organization, as a museum, what, what impact we would like to have on visitors when they, they interact with our collections, knowing what visitors are doing with digital technology and, and their phones in this particular example, and why they’re doing that, where do those two interests overlap and leveraging that little overlap. That’s the sweet spot-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Alli Burness:                           Where the museum’s interest and the visitors’ interest are one. That’s what we need to be going for.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah. I was quite interested. A few minutes ago you mentioned the importance of user agency, and it’s something you also talk about in the studies; this idea of user agency and authority. And I think often when we think about authority in a museum context, we mean it quite differently from what you were thinking about, so getting to that sweet spot, how do museums empower their visitors or help, um, enable that sense of agency and, and give them that agency over their experience, um, whilst, whilst they’re in the galleries but also help them find the sweet spot that is also the sweet spot for us?

Alli Burness:                           Um, I, I think visitors come in and enact their agency whether we like it or not.

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Alli Burness:                           Um, and um, I, I’m not sure if I have the most compelling answer to this. It’s about talking to our visitors and, and, and doing the research to deeply understand what they’re doing with their phones and why. And I mean there’s been a hell a lot of conversation around what our expectations of visitors are in terms of behavior and how Smart Phone technology is disrupting that. If we can take the time to properly understand why these behaviors are happening in our galleries and then work out how they align with our missions and what we, what we want, what we want for our visitors, um, that’s, that’s what … That’s the goal. Rather than changing visitor behaviors, it’s working with them to support what our missions are.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, for sure. Um, so Alli, I’m gonna change gears real quick ’cause it’s-

Alli Burness:                           Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Um, and think back to I think my, my first memory of you and how I think I became in contact with you. In 2013, you took a 12 month museum pilgrimage, right?

Alli Burness:                           Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Um-

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      And visiting more than 200 museums across, you know, tons, like dozens of countries. Um, and so you had this opportunity to travel the world, visit museums of all kinds, gain really nuanced insight, I think, into, um, just the, the diverse, diversity, the breadth of museum practice, what has stayed with you about that trip?

Alli Burness:                           I have so many answers to that. (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs) That’s great.

Alli Burness:                           And so, I didn’t take any systematic approach to my experience that year when I was touring all those museums. Um, often people have come to me and asked, you know, through your analysis, what would be your answer to these questions? I, I didn’t analyze. I immersed myself in the visitor experience.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Alli Burness:                           So, I described that year as my, um, human-centered design origin story. It, I, I cannot think o-outside of that. I am inherently visitor-centered-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Alli Burness:                           And user-centered in my mindset now, uh, so that’s, I mean, in that sense it has radically changed my career and, and my outlook on what I do. Um, it, there was all sorts of things that came out of that that have stayed with me and keep rising up again. Um, one of them is, uh, sort of like a differences on a, on a vertical level, so differences in how collections that try to speak to a broad geographic area, a national narrative, how they engage or inspire engagement in their visitors in comparison to those tiny, tiny collections that have a very community-specific focus and, and the kind of reactions they inspire. They’re quite different.

People engage very differently, and, and that’s, that’s a really interesting spectrum, um, and, and there’s so much that our really big collecting institutions can learn from our really tiny collections that maybe don’t even have a curator. Um, so that was definitely something that sat with me. Um, and now the topic that seems to be becoming a bit of an obsession is the relationship between art and design because I came from an art historical background. I’ve moved into design, and museums kind of sit in that hot spot, um, so I’ve been thinking about how art might sit on a spectrum of innovation. And art would be the creative R&D hot house, so we’re all-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (laughs)

Alli Burness:                           Is this magic? I don’t understand.

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs)

Alli Burness:                           Where is design is that real implementation place where we trust what designers make and they implement at scale. Um, it’s a … And I’m still teasing out that relationship. I’m always innately drawn to the boundaries of things, so it’s been a fascinating leap to make, and, and, and museums kind of sit within that.

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs) It’s really interesting hearing you talk about this idea that people trust designers or we trust designers but don’t necessarily have the same trust in art? Is that, is that something you were getting at? Is there a, is there a trust gap between art and design?

Alli Burness:                           Potentially, and that would be a really interesting topic to, to dig into. I know that in Australia, the art sector has sort of been under attack-

Suse Anderson:                    Ah.

Alli Burness:                           And the, the sense of public value that art can bring is not, not very broadly understood. I think, um, because it’s so hard to measure, art can … The impact is hard to measure. It has a smaller audience. Um, and so the art sector I know here in Australia has been forced to defend itself in, in all sorts of ways. Um, yeah, it’s, it’s a, um, really interesting, interesting topic. Yeah. I think that, that’s … I haven’t sort of come up with a, um, with a comprehensive answer on that one yet.

Suse Anderson:                    That’s totally okay.

Alli Burness:                           (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    I’ve been really enjoying you, um, ’cause you started writing about some of these things of sort of trying to define the differences between art and design, and it’s been really interesting to watch you grappling with some of these ideas-

Alli Burness:                           Mmm.

Suse Anderson:                    And to know that they were really coming out as much as anything of, of museum pilgrimage and that real deep dive into visitor experience, so-

Alli Burness:                           Mmm.

Suse Anderson:                    I think one thing I’d love to ask then is you’ve been making this career transition from being a digital producer in museums to becoming an experienced designer, in your view having experienced both inside and outside the museum sector, what insights or approaches do you think museums can borrow or adapt from the private sector with respect to aligning with better, better with user behavior patterns?

Alli Burness:                           Um, I think there’s a really strong movement inside the museum to adopt to user-centered design and design thinking. That’s a really strong trend, particularly in those areas that directly interface with visitors. Sometimes I wonder if that can be expanded more deeply into those, um, into the organizational structure, into the design of deep strategy. Um, they also would benefit greatly from co-design techniques, from design thinking. Rather than those strategies being conjured in-house at high levels of management and then pushed out, let’s co-design a digital strategy for the museum with audiences. What would that look like? Um, if audiences wanted to have some input into, um, the organizational structure of the museum, what would that look like?

Um, so instead of it being on a project by project basis, what about at a deeper level of the institutions? I think, I think there is scope to grow that human-centered design skill at those deeper levels.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah. Um, Alli, do you, do you miss being in it every day? (laughs)

Alli Burness:                           (sighs) Um, uh, no. (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs)

Alli Burness:                           No. No, you know-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Alli Burness:                           I mean one thing that I’ve learned is that to work every day and to devo-, devote your whole life to a burning passion, something you so deeply believe in, you’ll burn out really quickly, and you will also become disillusioned really quickly because you’ve got really strong views about how things could work. And I always end up at that forefront trying to push things into a more innovative space, and it … I … As an industry, I don’t think it naturally sits there.

Um, so I-I think, um, I’ve learned that there’s real value in dipping in and out for self-preservation, um, um, but also, you-you know, leveraging that opportunity to work with other sectors to grow knowledge from that to bring it back into the museum sector but also to take a breather in those, you know, those other spaces where, perhaps, you know, it’s not coming out of y-your sense of identity. Um-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Alli Burness:                           That’s a really heavy load to carry all the time.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      T-that was a brilliant, um, link back to Episode 20, which deal with self, self-care.

Suse Anderson:                    Oh, true.

Alli Burness:                           (laughs) Indeed-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    And also, in fact, Episode 21, dealing with insiders and outsiders. (laughing)

Alli Burness:                           Yes.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah. There we go.

Alli Burness:                           Yes.

Suse Anderson:                    Ah, way to bring it home, Alli.

Alli Burness:                           (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs)

Alli Burness:                           Excellent.

Suse Anderson:                    Yes, Alli, thank you so much for coming and chatting to us about this. It has been really enjoyable to hear about the work you’ve been doing and the way your thinking is evolving as you continue looking at these different things from both inside and outside the museum.

Alli Burness:                           Excellent. Thank you so much for having me. It’s, um, been a very interesting discussion. Thanks.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Okay, Suze, a lot to, uh, process there.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, there always is. Every single episode I walk away with so much to think about, and this gave us, I think, some really different perspectives, thinking about research in the museum and working with visitors and about the behaviors that visitors are bringing into the museum with them.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah. I cannot wait to see how Tedi’s research, uh, progresses over the next few months and years really.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah. Absolutely. I do think we should definitely check back in with her in a year or so and see-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Definitely.

Suse Anderson:                    What she’s discovered.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Season three.

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs) Season three, I like it.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    Well, that, that is a, a really classy segue, a nice way for us to thank our presenting sponsor, uh, this month and every month. We are, as always, presented by The American Alliance of Museums, and we are so happy about that. Um, Jeffrey, if people wanna find us on the internet, where can they do so?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      You can tweet us at Museopunks, and you can also view show notes and links and information about all our guests at

Suse Anderson:                    Yes, and uh, this month in particular, we would love to hear your wrestling stories. If you are another closet wrestling fan out there in museum world, we have to believe they exist, get in contact with us. Or if you just don’t understand why we are into wrestling, hit us up as well. I am sure we would love another excuse to, uh, dive a little bit more into this incredible narrative format.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      And maybe in the future, we’ll have an episode dedicated to what museums can learn from professional wrestling.

Suse Anderson:                    I absolutely think we should.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Okay, Suse, that’s another episode in the can and, uh, look forward to chatting with you next month.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, Jeffrey, it has been great fun. I can’t wait to chat to you again soon.


Dr. Tedi Asher
Photo of Dr. Tedi AsherDr. Tedi Asher is Neuroscience Researcher at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. The position — which marks a first for an art museum — supports PEM’s neuroscience initiative and is made possible through a generous grant from the Barr Foundation. Dr. Asher earned her Ph.D. from Harvard Medical School’s Biological and Biomedical Sciences program and has spent the last 12 years gaining experience in a wide range of fields, including neuroscience and psychology. At PEM, she will synthesize neuroscience research findings and make recommendations on how museums can enhance and enrich the visitor experience.
Read more on Dr. Tedi Asher’s work at PEM

Alli Burness
Photo of Alli BurnessAlli Burness is currently an experience designer with ThinkPlace, a global strategic design consultancy that applies human centered design and complex systems thinking to create public value.  On the side, she is a freelance digital producer, designing digital presences for artists, small arts organizations and not-for-profits. She also researches, publishes, tutors and speaks about the value of creative digital expression and social media use in the cultural sector. She previously worked in museums and galleries as a digital producer and collection manager for around 10 years. She has created content for institutions such as the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Wellcome Collection in the UK and the Powerhouse Museum and Museums and Galleries NSW in Australia. She is currently based in Sydney.

You can find Alli on Twitter @alli_burnie, on her website, and at

Show Notes

Field Study: Benchmarking Visitor Behaviors and Mobile Device Usage in the Museum

Museum in a Bottle

NYTimes: How to Get the Brain to Like Art


Museum Objects and Instagram: Agency and Communication in Digital Engagement

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Museopunks is presented by the American Alliance of Museums.
Twitter: @museopunks

Episode 21: The “Outsiders” Edition

Since the 1960s, artists have been critically examining the practices of museums, at times critiquing the idea of what a museum is and how it presents its stories. One of the most influential exhibitions of Institutional Critique was Mining the Museum–installation by artist Fred Wilson at the Maryland Historical Society, in collaboration with The Contemporary.

In this episode–25 years after Mining the Museum–the Punks explore the role outsiders such as artists and external consultants play in driving creative change and innovation within museum practice. What can outsiders do within the institution that permanent staff cannot? What are the limitations they face? And how does a reliance on external talent impact the sustainability of progress in the museums they work with?

Jeffrey Inscho:            (singing)

Suse Anderson:          Ice (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:            Suse, how are you?

Suse Anderson:          Ah, good day Jeff. I’m really good Jeff. What about yourself?

Jeffrey Inscho:            Uh, I am getting ready to be on vacation mode here.

Suse Anderson:          Hey.

Jeffrey Inscho:            So, I am like-

Suse Anderson:          That’s sounds good.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah. I am ready to be, uh, under a palm tree … um … on- on a beach and-

Suse Anderson:          So-

Jeffrey Inscho:            … some hot sun with a cold beverage.

Suse Anderson:          A serious vacation then.

Jeffrey Inscho:            This is a serious vacation.

Suse Anderson:          Oh.

Jeffrey Inscho:            This is no wi-fi.

Suse Anderson:          (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:            This is … this is disconnected.

Suse Anderson:          Ah, so you’re not gonna have any sense of how, uh, people react to this- this show once we push it out this- this month?

Jeffrey Inscho:            It’ll- it’ll be a surprise.

Suse Anderson:          (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:            A few days … a few days when I get home we’ll see how … we’ll see how people like it. Uh, hopefully, uh, don’t at me on Twitter. (laughs)

Suse Anderson:          (laughs) That’s great. How- how often do you actually intentionally unplug? Do … You- you do it pretty often don’t you?

Jeffrey Inscho:            I do. I do it quite a bit. I do it … uh … I do it s- … uh … substantive- substantively at … you know, every couple months I try to just because of the nature of my work being digital, and fast, and … um … connected all the time. So, I try to like just take a- an intensive week and step away. So, that’s next week.

Suse Anderson:          That’s really interesting. I actually don’t think I’ve done anything like that for a long time. But now with a-

Jeffrey Inscho:            Oh, you should do it.

Suse Anderson:          Well that’s … N- now that, um, I’m only a few months away from motherhood and the kid coming along-

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah.

Suse Anderson:          … I’m actually trying to start … um … moving away from technology-

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah.

Suse Anderson:          Just ’cause I don’t want my first few months of my- my child’s life to be-

Jeffrey Inscho:            Right.

Suse Anderson:          … my head embedded in- in something digital.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah.

Suse Anderson:          I want it to be engaged with her; and so, I’m actually pretty consciously now starting to create some barriers for myself.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Mm-hmm (affirmative). I- I think once- once your daughter comes along … um … w- we’re gonna have some interesting discussions about the place of technology in children’s lives and the next generation’s lives. I- I, you know, I look to my kids and I’m … I- I sometimes I don’t even recognize the w- … the world that they’re growing up in.

Suse Anderson:          Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:            You know, and, um, I guess that’s, uh, maybe we had the same thing with our parents when- when we were kids, you know? The kind of like parents don’t like your rock music, but, um … I don’t know.

Suse Anderson:          Yeah. I think that’s-

Jeffrey Inscho:            It’ll be-

Suse Anderson:          I- I think that’s-

Jeffrey Inscho:            It’ll be just-

Suse Anderson:          … really interesting and, e- even similarly thinking about museums differently for me.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:          I only had the realization this week. That it will be the first time I really regularly go to museums with children instead of as an adult.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah. Yep.

Suse Anderson:          And, how differently I’m going-

Jeffrey Inscho:            Wow, yeah.

Suse Anderson:          … to experience them.

Jeffrey Inscho:            You’re gonna go see a lot of dinosaurs.

Suse Anderson:          (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:            (laughs)

Suse Anderson:          Yeah. That’s fantastic.

Jeffrey Inscho:            So, do we have any followup from the last episode? I kind of feel like the self-care episode was pretty well received. We got a lot of nice- nice Tweets and reactions to people telling us how- how they take care of themselves. Um …

Suse Anderson:          Yeah. I think that’s true. I mean to be fair it’s not a … it’s not a topic that you’re going to be really nasty about to … (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:            True. Yeah.

Suse Anderson:          Most of the time. Um, but yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:            For sure.

Suse Anderson:          I- it was interesting to see how many people it resonated with and that they’re really w- … there does seem to be a very conscious-

Jeffrey Inscho:            Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:          … effort that people are making to figure out what is and isn’t working for them in terms of museum careers and I-

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah.

Suse Anderson:          I’ve noticed that trend continuing around just online conversations that I’ve been seeing happening lately.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah.

Suse Anderson:          Around how people prioritize themselves and- and what their needs are within their careers.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah. Um. I also want to apologize to some people, um, who requested stickers. Um. We’re still waiting on a- a reorder, so, uh, we did send out another shipment, but we have a- a- a backlog that- that we’re working to fill. So, just hold tight. Stickers are on their way.

Suse Anderson:          And keep asking us for them.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah.

Suse Anderson:          But, just know that they might be, uh, lovely surprises when they arrive (laughs) as opposed to, uh, ones that you’ll get immediately.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah. Cool. So, um, Suse what are we talking about today?

Suse Anderson:          You know, today we are talking about a thing that I think is a really interesting dynamic. We’re talking about that role of outsiders in museums and in pushing change in museums; and that can be outsiders like artists.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:          For artist inventions, but also the importance of … uh … commercial practitioners and vendors; and how people outside museums are often really … um … important catalysts for-

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah.

Suse Anderson:          For change and transformation.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah. This is … this is something that I- I- I, you know, I’ve been … it’s been on my mind a lot lately just because the studio is kind of tasked with thinking about what- what skills and resources need to be internalized for a- a museum-

Suse Anderson:          Hmm.

Jeffrey Inscho:            … of the 21st and- and, you know, now that we’re well into the 21st century, the 22nd century. Like we gotta be thinking about that. So, um … thinking about what we outsource, what vendors we work with versus what we bring in to the fold is something that … um … I am really cognizant of at this point. So, I’m looking forward to having this discussion with our two amazing guests this month.

Suse Anderson:          Yeah. It- it’s funny. I’ve also been thinking about this topic, but particularly since I left, uh, working within a museum and went back into academia is just really thinking about, well, what my role is now as someone who sort of straddles these worlds of I’m no longer an insider in museums, and yet it is still my world absolutely and completely.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah.

Suse Anderson:          So, who are we talking to today, Jeff?

Jeffrey Inscho:            We have a couple rock stars this episode. We have, uh, George Ciscle. Who, um, many of our listeners may, uh, know from founding the Contemporary in Baltimore and, um, being a driving force for, um, one of the … I- I would say one of the most influential exhibitions, uh, over the last couple decades Mining the Museum.

Suse Anderson:          Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Uh. In Baltimore with Fred Wilson.

Suse Anderson:          Absolutely. I had an absolute fan-girl moment when he said yes.

Jeffrey Inscho:            (laughs)

Suse Anderson:          And, (laughs) to coming and talking to us today and I’m really, really excited about it. We’re also talking to, uh, Jen Brown otherwise known as the Engaging Educator. Who does really interesting work bringing improv and improvisation techniques into museums as well as into many other spaces; and she is gonna talk to us about what she gets from working with museums and we’ll get to dig a little deeper into both of those.

George Ciscle has mounted ground-breaking exhibitions, created community arts programs, and taught fine arts and humanities courses for close to 50 years. He trained as a sculptor studying with Isamu Noguchi. And, for 15 years he developed high school interdisciplinary curriculum and work study programs for the emotionally disadvantaged. In 1985 he opened the George Ciscle Gallery, where he promoted the careers of young and emerging artists.

From 1989 to 1996 Ciscle was the director and founder of the Contemporary, an un-museum which challenges existing conventions for exhibiting art in nontraditional sites. Focusing its exhibitions and outreach on connecting artists’ work with the people’s every day lives. From 1997 to 2017 as curator and resident at the Maryland Institute College of Art, he continued to develop new models for connecting art, artists, and audiences by creating the Exhibition Development Seminar, curatorial studies concentration, and the MFA in Curatorial Practice.

George, welcome to the show. It is so great to have you here.

George Ciscle:            Thank you for the invitation.

Suse Anderson:          Uh. So, we are talking today about outsiders in museums and I- I- I think sort of that balance between insiders and outsiders; and I’ve always been really excited about the Contemporary and the work that you did there. So, you were founder and the first director of the Contemporary Museum in Baltimore. Which continues today as a nomadic non-collecting art museum. In its early years the Contemporary was dedicated to redefining the concept of the museum.

I’d really love to hear a little bit about how the Contemporary started and what drove you to seek to redefine or reimagine museums and museum practice.

George Ciscle:            Yes, that is certainly the core question. And, um, I always when I talk to my students I want to put this in sort of historical context because in, uh, 1989, um what was going on, certainly in the museum world, uh, looked a lot different than almost three decades later.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Mm-hmm (affirmative).

George Ciscle:            Um. So, I always try to put that in a context because in 1989 we look back at that point in history, especially in art history and the art world, it was the height of the culture wars.

Suse Anderson:          Mm-hmm (affirmative).

George Ciscle:            And, uh, during the culture wars as we know, uh, people really were looking at the- the work, you know, of Serrano, and Mapplethorpe, and … uh … and Annie Sprinkle, and people like that; and- and questioning the government. Meaning our government was questioning, you know, who is this art for? Why are we putting funds towards this? And, it was a … um … it was an unfortunate time. It was a very difficult time. Um, but the … the fortuitous thing that I think that came out of that was that museums had to start questioning what they were doing; because they were being accused of being elitist in terms of what, you know, what they were showing, the artist they were choosing, because they were not seeing a relationship, um, to the world outside of the art world on terms of the larger audience.

So, my interest really was in looking at that. Looking at could we exam, explore, deconstruct what a museum was in 1989. And that in- … that included many areas. It wasn’t just looking at what museums collect, and how they collect them, and their exhibition practices, but also very important elements. Such as, their board make up, their staff make up, you know, the people that were making the decisions, raising the monies for this. And, out of that, uh, really to- to me was the core question of audience.

Suse Anderson:          Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jeffrey Inscho:            Mm-hmm (affirmative).

George Ciscle:            So, (laughs) all of that to me in 1989 was about who was the audience for museums outside of the museum world. So, outside meaning of the museum members, of artists, you know, of collectors, of art historians. All very important audience, but it was a very … it was a limited audience. And so, I really wanted to r- … sort of raise the- the- the other question was who cares? (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:            Right.

George Ciscle:            Who- who- who cares beyond that- that audience that already was existing and supporting the museum, um, beyond that. And it’s-

Jeffrey Inscho:            You know-

George Ciscle:            Yeah. Go ahead.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah. George, this notion of audience centrality even in 2017-

George Ciscle:            Yes.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Is, uh, it considered to be … um … I- I guess a mildly progressive, um, idea. And so, in 1989 I mean you’re talking about this in 1989, 1990, um, that must have been … uh, uh … must have blown some minds. That- that-

George Ciscle:            Well it was interesting, um, in ’89. I remember ’89, and ’90, and ’91, uh, Lisa Corinne and Jed Dodd, staff members who worked with me back- back then at the Contemporary. We went to AAM, uh, conferences.

Suse Anderson:          Mm-hmm (affirmative).

George Ciscle:            And, uh, no where in any panel, in any discussion, in any thematic discussions were they talking about audience, uh, like we are right now. Right? Like museums are today. And so, it’s interesting that- that it was quote unquote revolutionary. Not just the concept of what a museum might be, but the fact that … that no one had ever really … And, I’m not … I’m not saying that no one. You- you- you notice I haven’t mentioned education departments and museums, right?

Jeffrey Inscho:            Sure. Sure.

George Ciscle:            (laughs) Because the education departments were the ones-

Jeffrey Inscho:            Right.

George Ciscle:            … looking at audience. Right? But, they were looking at audiences that were more in pro- … programmatically, in terms of what they were doing and they- they were doing and continue to do incredible work. You know? But, it wasn’t the curatorial staff that was doing that. It wasn’t the directors that were … or the boards that were dictating what the mission of the museum might be that included the larger audience.

But, the education department, of course, was; because it was made up mostly of artists. (laughs) Uh, who were really not just practitioners in the field, but really saw what they were doing as important beyond just their own studio.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah. George, what … uh … at, you know, in those early days of the Contemporary, what- what affordances or freedoms came from being a museum without a space, right? Without- without a building?

George Ciscle:            Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Or a museum without-

George Ciscle:            Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:            … a collection.

George Ciscle:            Yeah, exactly.

Jeffrey Inscho:            And- and then on- on the opposite side of that, what were some of the constraints you had to deal with kind of working outside this more traditional legacy model?

George Ciscle:            Right. Well I- I would … I would say certainly the- the freedoms were that we really were able to be nomadic. We were able to go into different communities. We were able to form collaborations and create resonances that the projects and the exhibitions we did were really almost customized. Site specific, if you will, to that artist, their work, the content of their work, the audience, uh, where- where we’re taking these projects to, uh, whether that audience was a traditional audience or was a nontraditional, you know, a- a nontraditional audience.

And, so we had these freedoms to- to create these very interesting, uh, dialogues, uh, with artists and with communities, um, throughout that. And, also I would say the freedoms it gave us was to … because we were questioning what a museum was w- we had to question ourselves. So, (laughs) we were constantly looking at what we were doing, why we were doing it, and sort of using this as a- a- a continual constant assessment tool going into these different communities.

Um. I would say the- the re- re- restraints of it back then, were that unlike today, um, it was not a … not, um … uh, Baltimore or- or elsewhere even. Uh. It was not a collaborative community. Right? So, both the art community and the community at large. So, everyone talked back then about the pie … the pie. (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:            Right.

Suse Anderson:          Hmm.

George Ciscle:            Yeah. So that- that was the huge discussion.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Mm-hmm (affirmative).

George Ciscle:            Right? And, so we were … there were front page articles before we even did our first project in Baltimore, uh, with museums have existed in Baltimore, saying we don’t need, right, we don’t need this. Right? We hadn’t even done anything yet, (laughs) to even show people how … what it … what it may have been different than what they were already doing. But, they were really trying to say, well the pie … Again it had to do … It didn’t really had to do with a concept what we were doing, or saying well let’s expand the contemporary art world here.

It really had to do sadly with money.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Right.

George Ciscle:            And- and because again back to ’89, the culture wars it became about money. Uh, it became about that the funding was being pulled from museums who were doing e- exhibitions that weren’t reaching a wider audience. And so, it’s interesting to think about that how the funding, of course as we know, shifted away from exhibitions into audience development and community outreach. Uh, so I’d say with the re- … the … that restriction really was that it wasn’t a collaborative community so we were working in isolation from … I don’t mean the artist community, but I mean the institutional community, because they felt that again that- that funding pie and that … and, um, … membership pie and all of that, and from foundations was only so large; and it … and it was not gonna … it was only gonna be the cut into six slices. Not eight.

Suse Anderson:          Huh. It- it’s interesting, ’cause when I think about … um … Mining the Museum, which is one of … one of the things that we wanted to talk to you about, which was such a revolutionary exhibition, uh, created 25 years ago. It- it was, as far as I’m aware and I’m sure you can talk to this, a collaboration between the Contemporary, and the Maryland Historical Society, and- and obviously artist Fred Wilson.

George Ciscle:            Yeah.

Suse Anderson:          And, in that exhibition for- for people for listeners who might not be familiar with it, basically Wilson came in and subverted the way history was being told and presented within the museums. So, he- he used the collection, and the archives, and the resources of the historical society to highlight histories of African-American slavery and stories that really hadn’t been told within the museum context.

George Ciscle:            Sure.

Suse Anderson:          So, Wilson was essentially critiquing the idea of what a museum is through his intervention, but obviously you as the Contemporary were also critiquing what a museum is. But, you … uh … this- this notion that actually it was not necessarily a collaborative space initially, you must have been forging so many connections … uh, uh … that were then quite challenging both I’m- I’m sure from all sides. Can you talk just a little bit about then the germination of this exhibition? How it came together, and then how it affected your own thinking about m- museum practice, and what a museum should be doing?

George Ciscle:            Right. Well it’s interesting because, uh, Mining the Museum was our fourth project.

Suse Anderson:          Mm-hmm (affirmative).

George Ciscle:            Um. We’d only … we were only two years old. And, uh, the three projects before that, that we had done, uh, visual aids a photo manifesto US … uh, photography from the USSR, and soul shadows urban warrior myths. So, exhibitions really dealing with very timely topics, um, in terms of what was going on in 1990 and ’91 especially. Um, uh, mass incarceration, uh, the y- … uh, censorship in the USSR by artist, and- and o- obviously the AIDS epidemic, right? But, these … and so, these three projects in our first two years were getting a lot of attention here in- in Baltimore and, um, a lot of support and- and interest, and- and excitement. Right?

And, people were starting to understand very much this exploration. How we were trying to connect artist, and art, and audiences. Right? How to sort of connect people’s everyday life to what contemporary artists were doing. People understood that. But, no one in those three projects ever talked about or wrote about the first question that we had, (laughs) as an institution. Which was de- … what defines a museum. Right?

Jeffrey Inscho:            Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:          Mm-hmm (affirmative).

George Ciscle:            So, no one was talking about that. Right? Even though … So, no one was talking about these, uh, case studies. Right? But, they were very impactful, effective exhibitions without question. So, we after our- our second project … a- after the second project and going into the third, said to ourselves, um, both the board and- and staff, Lisa Corinne, and- and Jed Dodd, and- and the board, and myself really talked about, wait a minute, let’s stop a second. We’re doing s- … we’re doing work that obviously people are receiving very well. Uh, in the … in these three different communities. Because again those three … uh, uh … were not in- in institutions. They were in nontraditional spaces.

Suse Anderson:          Mm-hmm (affirmative).

George Ciscle:            Um. So, we said to ourselves, we need to choose a project and artist. That the whole purpose of it is to question a museum. (laughs) Right? And so, we of course looked at obviously the history of, you know, artists. Uh. You know like Hans Haacke and, uh, Andrea Fraser, and other people who certainly had been doing that. Right? Uh, in their own prac- … in their own practice, but we wanted to as an institution to say, well, what would happen if we used that as the guiding force of a project?

And so, we started looking at artists, emerging artists at the time. This is 1991. And we knew of Fred’s work, uh, in … at … in commercial galleries and in alternative spaces in New York and the Bronx. So, we- we were aware of what he was doing and we certainly knew that his practice was a- almost a faux museum practice. In terms of using, you know, reproductions of objects and, uh, you know, creating spaces that look like natural history museums, and things like that. But, we know had never actually worked in a museum or worked with real objects.

And so, we brought Fred, uh, to Balti- … we brought Fred to Baltimore, um, basically to look at all the museums here; and took him on a tour and, um, in the long run by the end of the day the Maryland Historical Society was his number one choice. Uh, because when he went into that museum, he came out and he said, where- where am I? (laughs) Where am I in this museum and where is my s- … where is my story? You know, as an African-American, uh, represented in here?

Jeffrey Inscho:            Hmm. That- that-

George Ciscle:            And, origin.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah. That origin story is … is so interesting. Um, and you know I- I think, you know, even though Mining the Museum was a cross-institutional partnership and an artist intervention, you know, looking … looking back on it I kind of, and maybe this is just my personal view of it or I’m sure some other people have this view, but it’s … it almost seems like it took a lot of bravery for the Maryland Historical Society to be a part of this, and almost is-

George Ciscle:            They- they deserve so much credit for that. It’s very interesting that you say that because, uh, people sort of a- a- a- assume that they got all this criticism for doing it, uh, you know, uh, for doing this kind of project.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah.

George Ciscle:            For being under the microscope. Of course the opposite as a matter of fact history the … the history books sort of show, I mean, the majority of the history books were, you know, presented as their project. Um, and, uh, you know, we the Contemporary of course, you know, worked with Fred, and presented the, uh, proposal, you know, to the … the- the Maryland Historical Society, and, you know, created the collaboration, and what the parameters would that … would that be. Um, it … So, all that was an uncertainty as a collaboration that- that Fred was at the core of and the two institutions staff, and volunteers, and docents, uh, worked together. You know?

So we- we created that structure, um, um, subsequently, uh, from that. And, also I would say that so- so that being the case, so now we had Fred, we had this artist who was really interested in this opportunity to work in the museum with a real collection. To sort of tell his story. You know? Through his eyes, but with their work. Um. But we also had this uncanny opportunity (laughs) that again we did not plan, but became apart of the scheduling that AAM’s first conference in Baltimore, was in, uh, 1992.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Oh my gosh.

Suse Anderson:          Mm-hmm (affirmative).

George Ciscle:            Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:            (laughs)

George Ciscle:            So, all that … so-

Jeffrey Inscho:            Perfect timing.

George Ciscle:            So, we’re like … when we found that out it was like, okay, let’s schedule. Can we … can we? Can the historical side and the contemporary in terms of our, uh, planning, um, can we s- … Are we able to schedule this for when that is here? Um. So, which of course we did and, um, and over 4,000 delegates came, uh, during that- that weekend … that week-

Suse Anderson:          Yeah.

George Ciscle:            … to see the exhibition. Which of course forced us … And of course the New York Times came and covered it. And, it forced us to, uh, fortunately to ex- extend the run of the show so that museum from all over the country, uh, came with their staffs, uh, and met with the contemp- … especially with the Contemporary to really talk about that. With their questions, uh, the- their museums questions were what’s next? (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:            (laughs)

George Ciscle:            So- so, that was the course. No one had … I mean, we knew what was next. The Contemporary, we were all … we were all from there-

Suse Anderson:          (laughs)

George Ciscle:            … with Alison Sorren in the back of a 1957 Chevy pick-up truck. Going into-

Jeffrey Inscho:            (laughs) Right.

George Ciscle:            … 80 communities and five states.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Right.

George Ciscle:            So, we knew what was next for us, but the question was, well, what happens now? Would … How do you … Can you d- … sustain this? Meaning- meaning in terms of a museum, uh, its practice. So, yes. The historical society, back to you’re saying in terms of the bravery, without question that they, um, uh, people had and still acknowledge that. That they were really the heroes in that and that they also allowed the Contemporary as an outside, as a young … I mean we were just new kids on the block. Uh, to be able to come in there (laughs) and- and … You know the … it’s the oldest institution in the state of Maryland. You know? (laughs)

And so, here we were the youngest.

Suse Anderson:          Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Right.

George Ciscle:            Um. Coming- coming and so it was an-

Jeffrey Inscho:            Oh. That’s … yeah.

George Ciscle:            … interesting collaboration in terms of- of that perspective also. And, also of course thinking about the audience that we were bringing into there was not just this museum field, but were artists. So, artists from our community and outside the community ra- … had rarely ever entered the doors of the historical society.

Suse Anderson:          George, do you think that … the- the museum or in fact the museums in general can perform this kind of introspection themselves without an external catalyst? I mean I think you- you’re talking about having so many delegates come and see this exhibition at AAM’s conference and how that led to this question of what’s next. But- but how important is it being able to work with an external catalyst for something like this?

George Ciscle:            Well it’s interesting. When, um, at … when it was ov- … the show was over and the director or it … L- L- Lisa and I, uh, met with and the board presidents, we all met to- to talk about this, right, and, um, the board was asking the historical society’s director and the curators what’s- what’s next. And, they looked to us wanting us to continue collaborating with them. Uh. As sort of the answer to that. Right? Which is an interesting answer. Like that- that they were actually open to us con- … staying there in- in their home and work- working, you know, together. Uh, but of course as I say we were onto other things.

But, my answer to them was that, well the answers are easy. It’s artists, artists, artists. Right? (laughs) So, Fred made that. You know? Yes we fac- … we … we had the idea in terms of what our next project would be. We engaged him in- in that. We commissioned him to do the work. We created a collabor- collaborative structure for- for it and the process. Yes. But, Fred … it- it- it’s the artist and everything the Contemporary did was always centered around the artist. Um, but he’s the one who did that. So, yes. It’s always wonderful, uh, to have collaboration, to bring outside people, and perspectives, and to look at different working processes. But, for me it really is about what … the- the artists is the one who has the vision.

We- we … The Contemporary didn’t have the vision for my museum. Fred did. Right? We just have a … O- our vision was basically to say how- how do we open this up to give artists opportunities, you know, to make these connections with audiences outside of the art world?

Jeffrey Inscho:            Right. You … George, you have no idea how many meetings I’ve been in at work where- where Mining the Museum has come up as a reference and, you know, I almost like I it- it … as we were kind of thinking about this, you know, I almost placed the … placed the … that exhibition as like the … like the A.D. (laughs) You know? Like it’s after Mining the Museum, everything kind of like, uh, seems to … the perspective seems to- to change. And, I’m wondering if, um, you feel that anything has changed in museums, and the way that we deal with stories, and with history since …. since that exhibition? Um-

George Ciscle:            Well I think without question they have.

Jeffrey Inscho:            … or do you think that that exhibition has had a- a lasting impact on the sector?

George Ciscle:            Yeah. Uh. Without question and- and again w- whether it- it … even if it doesn’t directly go back 25 years ago to Mining the Museum in terms of what’s happened since then, right, because again there are other factors we have to look at. In terms of the culture wars, and funding shifting, to audience development from- from- form the government, and things like that. So, there- there are certainly lots … lots of f- factors, right, in- in all of that. And, artists- artists also came more to the forefront in terms of working in museums, right? They were given a- a- a- a voice, uh, uh, not just a curatorial voice, but also a- a voice in- in terms of, um, how they work in museums. Right?

So, I think that this … There has been a great change. You look at AM today. You look at the last 10 years of the … of the themes of the AM conferences. Right? Every single one of them have to do with audience, and engagement, and equity. Every single one, right? So, there is a huge shift and a … and a focus now. Not that there’s still for- for change. There has to be still room for it, if not why are we still talking about Mining the Museum? Why (laughs) … Why are we still having these conversations if- if it … if our- our approach and our methodology of working in museums has completely shifted?

No, it’s certainly shifted and certainly we see that in- in … um … the training, you know, of curators, and the training of educators, and, uh, and people in museum administrators. That in their training they are now having to talk about, you know, who is the audience for these institutions.

Suse Anderson:          Yeah. George it’s actually listening to you makes me feel incredibly optimistic, uh, because there is a sense, I think sometimes when your working, uh, as a progressive practitioner or someone who is seeking to make change, sometimes it feels like such a, um, you know, that you’re- you’re really pushing the sort of proverbial rock up a hill. But, you’ve been really doing progressive practice and boundary pushing work for close to 50 years now within the sector. I’d love to hear just any particular insight that you’ve gained from … from being progressive over such a long period of time and- and what lessons you’d pass along to emerging practitioners or those who are still concerned with change and concerned with trying to put the audience at the forefront, uh, and really think about what museum practice is today.

George Ciscle:            Well, I- I would say that I always sort of look at the … what the creative practice of an artist is in terms of their process in working making art. Um. And- and certainly it all begins it … with, you know, research. You know? It- it begins reflection. It begins with an idea, um, before you know how to develop it. Right? So, for me, uh, and people who are looking to- to make change in the field, um, one really has to sort of step back and really examine, do that research in terms of what the history of the practice is, right, because again, there are a lot of good things we’re still … we need to still retain that happen in museums.

With our … you know we … we’re not going to, uh, negate that. But, we need to I think … I say to my students all the time, know the history, but also then figure out in terms as- as an artist would do. What are the options before you edit down to the final one that’s gonna be the- the most effective. You know, as- as your … as your art, or as your ex- exhibition, or as the project you’re working for. So, I’m- I very much … um … and, I think within in that is- is inherent the willingness yourself to change, and to adapt and to adjust. Um. I very much am an advocate in terms of a- a consensus model of- of working, uh, as a team.

And so, I always talk to my student about that. About to me the real success of the Contemporary, um, was not just the projects, was the we. And, I mean the we. I mean this, uh, it wasn’t me as the founder. It was the we. It was the staff. It was the board. They were all the partners and collaborators. It was all the hundreds of volunteers. All that worked to carry out an artist’s vision. And so, I- I think that- that one needs to know how to … to- to make- make decisions together as a team. That there’s not this hierarchy of the decision comes on high and everyone else carries out the work for you.

Jeffrey Inscho:            George, before we let you go, I just wanted to touch on, um, something that came out of, um, the recent, uh, talk you gave with Fred Wilson, um, celebrating the 25th anniversary or Mining the Museum. This happened a few weeks ago. Um. And, this notion, um, I’m not sure if it was you or Fred who br- brought it up. I can’t remember, but the notion that a museum should be a place where anything can happen. Um. Notion that- that a museum should a- a delightful, surprising experience. Um. I’m wondering if … um … if, uh, … I- I assume I know the answer to this, but, um, if you … if you still believe that if, um, and if- if you feel, um, that we’re making progress toward that end.

George Ciscle:            I- I feel just … just as if Fred when he walked through the door at [inaudible 00:34:51] just like he said, where am I in this? Right? Where- where am I in this? I think for me that this museum space and again the Contemporary tried to do this in the environments we created as these un-museum, you know, spaces. That it has to be a welcoming, inviting environment, right? I want to be able when I say to my students like, you know, I- I want to bring my aunt Doris. We all have … I want to bring my aunt Doris.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah. (laughs)

George Ciscle:            Like, you … so wh- wh- what am I bring her to, right? What is she experiencing? Does she feel at home? Does she feel welcome? Does she feel that this is part of what she can talk to me about? So, yes. They certainly are these and sh- … need to be places of again that we welcome and invite people into; and I think we’re very fortunate. It’s interesting almost three decades later in Baltimore, like five years ago, our two major museums became free. Right? And, the different I mean you could look at the statistics in the … at the Walters and the BMA and see just at … so this is not just in terms a number but issues of diversity of the audience. Right? Of the difference that that made because it- it- it made them places where there were another … wasn’t the obstacle of education, knowledge, income (laughs), right?

It was just our doors are open to all, and- and to me that’s … I mean that has to be them message, right? I mean it’s another … nother … uh … quandary, uh, challenge of course once they get in- in there. Inside the doors then what happens, and what are they looking at, and what- what it means to them, and who’s interpreting it, and what they’re collecting, and all … and also like how they said, uh, before like who’s making the … those decisions in terms of the board and the staff. But- but- but I think those things are shifting also.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah, I think that’s a great place to end. (laughs)

Suse Anderson:          Yeah. Uh huh. Amazing. George, thank you so much.

George Ciscle:            Oh, thank you.

Suse Anderson:          Just as Jeffrey was saying-

George Ciscle:            And- and- and thank you for sponsoring what you’re doing.

Suse Anderson:          (laughs) Indeed. Well when- when Jeffrey was talking about how influential, um, Mining the Museum has been in his work, similarly for me it- it was I think a- a definitive moment was learning about that exhibition, ’cause it really shifted the way I was thinking about museums and museum practice. So, to have the opportunity to talk to you about its history and- and all of the issues that have come out of it, has been an absolute delight.

George Ciscle:            Thank you.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Jen Brown is the founder and artistic director of the Engaging Educator. Through The Engaging Educator her pedagogical approach to … of improv as continuing education has reached more than 25,000 people. All non-actors. Since 2012 Jen has given TEDx talks on the power of improv, grown The Engaging Educator to three locations in New York City, Winston-Salem North Carolina, and Los Angeles. And recently began The Engaging Educator Foundation, which is a 501c3 offering free and low cost improv workshops for educators, at risk adults, teens, and students on the autism spectrum.

Jen holds degrees and accreditation from Marquette University, City College of New York, Saint Joseph’s University, and Second City.

Jen Welcome to Museopunks.

Jen Brown:                 Hey. Happy to be here.

Jeffrey Inscho:            I’m glad to have you. Um. Been wanting to talk for a long time. Um. So, uh, The Engaging Educator does work with museums but also with fortune 500 companies, startups, universities, and a broad kind of range of- of- of clients you have. Before we get to far into this interview, can you just talk to us a little bit about how the museum sector became one of those focus areas for your company?

Jen Brown:                 Sure. Sure thing. Actually the museum area is where it all started. I was an actor for a long time. When … Decided in New York that I really was not happy being a actor. So, I went back to school for art history at City College and one of my professors actually flat out told me, he’s like, “You are no curator. You should look into museum education,” because I was so excited with making museums accessible. I- I would fight people in class pretty much when it was the whole like high and mighty art conversation.

So, I still remember this single professor from City College, Professor Hauser; and he’s like, “You are a museum educator ten-fold. Go do this.” And, I applied for an internship at the Guggenheim and the rest is kind of history on that front, because I worked there for a few years when I realized that I really missed improv. So, when I went back I was looking at improv in a very different way because my nickname at the Guggenheim was the Show Pony, by Sharon Vatsky.

Suse Anderson:          (laughs)

Jen Brown:                 Which, she’s- she’s lovely, but I still to this day, when I ask her about that, she’s like, yeah, you don’t get ruffled. You go out there, and you do what you gotta do. And, it was so much of my improv training that got me in that place to begin with. So, when I started EE, the Engaging Educator, I was offering class only to museum educators, and then from there it ended up opening into like educators from schools, random sales professionals; and I finally made a choice that I was like, hey, I am not gonna turn my head at money. I’m gonna say yes to this and will teach everyone except actors.

So, while I still work with a lot of museums, we also do work with corporations, and schools, and kids, and people on the autism spectrum. Museums are still my … like they’re close to my heart. So, I just actually got back from a consulting job with the Ringling in Sarasota, and right before that I was in Sarnia in Ontario with the museum. So, we’re still very, very rooted in museums. We also just happen to say yes to everyone.

Suse Anderson:          Huh. Which I guess is very much, uh, the- the improv notion of yes and. You know? The- the you- you start in one area and then you take the possibilities as they … as they come along and you accept those gifts. So, I guess tell us a little bit more then about w- why improv? Like what- what the techniques or what it is in improvisation that can really help the museum work, or really work in general?

Jen Brown:                 Well I think the biggest thing is the idea that improv is … is rooted in communication. So many people misunderstand it. I- I ask everyone at the beginning of improv workshops, like, what’s the first thing that you think of? And the answers range from like terror, to Jerry Seinfeld, to laughter, to spontaneity and really it’s just listening and responding. And, I’m museums I think it’s something that we don’t often do very well. Shockingly many other careers feel the same way because the same problems that I see in educators, and docents, and boards from museums they’re the same problems on different levels for kids in school, or teachers at schools, or even some of the companies that we’ve worked with.

I think communication skills is the biggest draw in people signing up for improv workshops. Whether that be presentation skills. They want to be better speakers, or they want to listen better, or they just want to have some fun doing what they do and their taking something like that idea of risk taking. So, while improv like touches all of these different ways, I think personally, the idea of being able to just listen and respond to a moment, and be in that moment, and actually be able to be present, and speak to it, and- and do a good job in that moment. (laughs) In the sense of you’re not thinking 20 steps ahead. You’re not thinking of your own agenda. You’re really focused on the here and now. Which is something that we don’t do anymore.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Right. That’s so interesting that, um, that broad view you have of- of multiple sectors and seeing commonalities or consistencies that run across them. Do you notice anything different or special about the museum sector compared to the other areas, uh, other sectors that you work in?

Jen Brown:                 Absolutely. Um. When I work with museums, I’m usually working with either like education. So, we’re thinking like museum educators, docents, anyone that’s dealing with the public. Visitor services is another branch that we do a lot of work with, as well as with boards. So, uh, the museum’s board we might do a story telling workshop or communication workshop. And, what I find very specific with museum’s is it’s really hard sometimes to get people to just have fun; and we talk about the idea of having fun and being light-hearted, and I think we take … we all take ourselves so seriously no matter what profession.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jen Brown:                 I feel like museums for some reason has this like it doesn’t matter if you’re in visitor’s services, or if you are a docent, or if you are a child … like an educator that’s working through K through 12, you have to learn to laugh at yourself, and you have to get out of your head sometimes. And, I find that museums are the- the sector that has the hardest time with that. And, we’re working with like accountants, and salespeople, and like Viacom CEOs, and people that are working in sales. And, museums have the hardest time getting out of their heads and just having a little levity.

Suse Anderson:          Yeah. I’m really interested also that boards are a big part of the-

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah.

Suse Anderson:          … the people that you work with, ’cause in- in- in some ways, and this might be a really naïve perspective, I think that education and that makes sense. I think about visitor services and these communication skills make sense, but if you’re talking about communication as being core to this, then having our boards be part … like be part of this process or go through this process sounds hugely important, but to me pretty unintuitive. I’d love to hear a little bit more about sort of A, whether that’s the same work that you’re doing or whether there are different expectations when you’re working with boards and also just a little bit more about what that … what those outcomes start to look like.

Jeffrey Inscho:            And how it comes about. Like how do you get invited in to talk … to work with the board?

Suse Anderson:          Yeah.

Jen Brown:                 Absolutely. So, when we’re working with anyone, it all starts with their goals. I make sure to have conversations with any museum, any board, any visitor services department, whatever it is and it’s always that breakdown of like, what do you want to accomplish? I don’t really accept the answer we want everything fixed; and I’ve gotten that answer before. (laughs) So, it’s not … it’s not me just making a joke. Like I’ve literally had a museum saying well we have a lot of problems. Please fix them.

Suse Anderson:          (laughs)

Jen Brown:                 And it’s like I’m not … that’s above my pay grade beyond anything.

Suse Anderson:          (laughs) Yeah.

Jen Brown:                 And, I- I’ll try and it’s really coming down to those core issues. So, thinking about boards and things not being incredibly intuitive like you wouldn’t think like, oh, a board should take an improv class. Well a lot of times a board is drawing together a lot of different people from a lot of different walks of life, and they need to find some commonality under a mission, under a focus and that lies in this idea of communicating ideas. So, we don’t end up a lot of times working with the board first. We’ll do a workshop with another department and someone will say, oh this was incredible for X or this really worked out for our facilitators becoming better to communicate to our visitors. Maybe we should try something like this for the board.

So, it’s similar work. Not the same in the sense of when I’m working with the board, it ends up being revolving around both their mission statements and the idea of communicating the mission of the board, of the museum, being able to talk about the museum, or foundation, or whatever umbrella organization is pulling that board together. And, then also the idea that always comes in, we get the people want to have fun. We want to get to know each other in a different way and have fun. And, it’s that part of improv that I have a love hate relationship with in that sense of team building.

Where when people call me for a team building activity, I cringe and think of a trust fall,

Jeffrey Inscho:            Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jen Brown:                 Because I don’t do any of that stuff. (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:            (laughs)

Jen Brown:                 But, people understand that word team building. So, I always say it’s a side effect. It’s never a core focus. We do laugh together. We get to know one another. And, what ends up happening specifically with board workshops is they become more comfortable speaking about areas in the museum that they have to be ambassadors for. Much like with museum education, you’re an ambassador to that museum. You are talking about the collection, the objects, the educational programs. Whatever you’re doing, you’re still speaking about something and have to be some sort of I would say … I don’t want to say expert ’cause I hate that word. But, it’s more of like an authentic voice on the subject.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Right. So, Jen, the focus of this episode is- is kind of on the infusion of outsider perspectives into the museum whether that be artist interventions or commercial kind of interventions like yours. Um. Do you think there are things that you have license to do as an outsider within an institution that’s … that like internal staff are- are unable to do? And- and why do you think this might be the case?

Jen Brown:                 Absolutely. I can’t tell you how many times I have gone into organizations, museums specifically, and heard, I really want to say this but I can’t. So can you? And, that- that whole mentality of someone else coming in from the outside it’s- its both sides. It’s that and it’s also if someone’s coming in from the outside and they’re telling you something, you might listen to them a little bit more because it’s a different voice, because it’s someone with a different perspective, because someone is looking at it in a different way.

I … when I come in, I- I make sure that I am working for the goals that I was hired on. Like I have an objective. Someone has asked me to do something. At the same time, I probably never will see these people again. So, that’s not saying I’m gonna go around and, excuse my language, be- be an ass; but I am going to be really honest because that’s the kind of person I am.

I was just doing a workshop like I said with the Ringling and I- I was talking about this. We were walking around with the docents, after it was a new class of docents. They’re all fantastic lovely people. And they were throwing around all of these really academic terms. And, I kept like raising my hand and saying, “What does this mean? What does this mean? What does this mean?” And, I feel like as if I was a member of the staff that wouldn’t necessarily be taken in the same sort of way as it was with me; because I spent all- all morning with them. Showing them like, hey, you need to reach people where they’re at. You need to talk to your audience. Not at them. We’re working on leveling the playing field. Making this accessible.

So, me calling out something like that, with that much forwardness and- and being that abrasive, was something that they actually thanked me for afterwards; and at the same time it was received in a way that it was constructive criticism because it wasn’t the voice that was kind of nurturing them through things.

I think as an outsider you- you both have that ability and then at the same time there’s that problem that comes in where you could be seen as just a satellite workshop; and, that’s why I really try to incorporate as much as like the museum’s pedagogical approach to whatever we’re doing into what I’m doing because if you’re just a satellite workshop … We’ve all gone to them. Like you go to one and you’re like, hey, that was fun. I’m never gonna use this again or I’m never gonna do this again. At the same time the ones that happen once that incorporate language that you’re used to hearing, or talk about things that you know are happening in your museum, or works that are on the wall, or objects in the collection, that sticks a little bit more.

So, being an outsider you kinda … it’s like a double-edged sword. Where you can say all this stuff and- and it doesn’t matter kind of, as long as you stay on mission; and at the same time you can say all this stuff and it doesn’t matter because-

Suse Anderson:          Yeah.

Jen Brown:                 … they can chose never to listen to you again.

Suse Anderson:          It’s one of the things I find sort of funny and I- I- I- think it could be frustrating. Although, I- I choose never to be frustrated by it. Uh. As an academic is, you know, I- I can teach things to my class and then I bring an external person in who can say very similar things and … but they listen to quite differently from me. In part because they are coming from this outsider and, you know, coming from immediately from the professionals, as opposed to me. Whose now teaching and- and-

Jeffrey Inscho:            Totally.

Suse Anderson:          … and I find that a really interesting dynamic. But, it makes me wonder whether museums, or classrooms, or other institutions actually need to bring in those external voices and those external perspectives to work through difficult or challenging problems, or even just to reframe the current problem.

Jen Brown:                 I think it’s really important for the outside … Not just because I’m an outside source. (laughs)

Suse Anderson:          (laughs)

Jen Brown:                 But, at the same time thinking about what I do, not just for museums, in the sense of working on your speaking skills. When you’re constantly listening to the same voice, that has the same cadence, and the same movement, everything that’s happening. So, your voice is moving at something that can be akin to white noise if you don’t think about changing it up and becoming more dynamic. I think the same thing happens when we’re listening to people in professional development or in class. If it’s constantly the same voice, then you can tune it out after a while. If you hear things in different ways and you’re getting these different methods of input, they tend to stick a little bit more because you’re hearing all different tonalities. You’re hearing all different manners of speaking. You’re hearing different ways of presentation. Because, everyone has a different speaking style.

I- I’m very upfront when I’m consulting because that’s generally what I’ve been asked to do. If I’m … When I was teaching at a museum and leading, uh, leading a PD for peers, I was a little different and I- I know I was a little more apologetic because I’m like these people are my peers. Like I’m telling them … I’m basically going into their house and rearranging their furniture and they didn’t ask me to. Whereas, if I’m coming in as … as a … as a consultant or as an outside force, someone’s hired me to do this and someone’s asked me, hey, rearrange our furniture and we’ll put it back if we don’t want it this way; but for now rearrange our furniture. (laughs)

So, I think the- the voice, and the different ways of speaking, and then the just the different ways of presenting information helps different learning styles learn. So, that in the end-

Suse Anderson:          And how-

Jen Brown:                 … it’s a … it’s a good thing.

Suse Anderson:          Y- yeah. I hadn’t even considered really the physicality of it, or literally using different language, or like- like sometimes I think you think about, uh, when someone is coming in and speaking about things that you yourself know, and believe, and have been speaking to, uh, you know. I think there can be a certain level of frustration but I hadn’t actually put together how important just actually difference becomes … And, also as you say you have then liberties to … you- you’re not having to engage in the long term dynamics. You’re not having to engage in these long developed relationships where this conversation or this series of conversations it’s just one of a- a- a much longer dialogue. You’re actually being able to come in and say, well, no, let’s just focus on this issue as opposed to having to think through all of those other factors.

Jen Brown:                 Absolutely. It’s a … it’s- it’s always interesting because I- I get the side wh- when coming into any organization. So, museums, yes. Every organization. I get the side that’s presented to me and then I get the side that’s in the first 10 minutes.

Jeffrey Inscho:            (laughs) Right. Right.

Jen Brown:                 (laughs) Which on occasion are very different sides. And, then I get the participant’s side which either happens like midway through, afterwards, in an email after. And it’s just … it’s just fascinating because you’re dealing with people. So, of course there’s relationships that are happening and some of them might not be great, and some of them might be amazing, and there might be a big set of change happening in the museum or in the organization. And that I find is- is when I come in sometimes is when there’s like a huge change happening in the organization or something needs to be different.

So, there’s all of this tension that’s already being built in because of change. It doesn’t matter if you’re … I’m spontaneous. Change makes me a little crazy sometimes. And it’s … Change is stressful. So, that- that energy builds itself in sometimes. So, it’s a … it’s it’s a big psychology experiment, I think, coming in from the outside because you’re suddenly like thrown into this microcosm where everyone’s been existing just fine and you’re … It can be frustrating and I- I just … I love it because it’s a moment that I know that it’s like these people … You’re getting what you get right now and you can choose to take it. And, I tell everyone before we start.

And, it was something that I actually heard from an outsider workshop at the Guggenheim. Where a group psychologist came in and her first sentence to us was, “You can like me. You can hate me. You can like what I do. You can hate what I do. Make up your mind at the end.” And, I say that to every group I’m with because you give them the option to choose and then they don’t spend the whole time trying to make judgments about you. It also ties into improv in the sense of, okay, you’re in the moment. You’re not like thinking about, oh man, I’m hungry, or, oh man, I want to go to lunch, or when is this over, or what are we doing next. You’re paying attention to the here and now.

And, then after if you want to send an email like, hey, this was a waste of my time, or I felt like this didn’t do anything, by all means go for it. You can really see a person’s mentality when you say that though, because if they spend the whole time judging and thinking about it, then they have a hard time themselves being in the moment.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah. For sure. So, Jen you … I … you know, you approach your work with the EE through- through a lens of professional development, or continuing education, and I think that’s really great because I … because I- I kind of feel like you’re contributing to the capacity of the museum. Uh. Boosting their in- internal resources kinda by building up, uh, their internal skill sets. Um, and so like when you’re gone, they can implement the learnings. Right? It’s … And the museum itself doesn’t become reliant of you in perpetuity.

Jen Brown:                 Absolutely. Yeah. Absolutely not.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Um. Right?

Jen Brown:                 Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:            And- and they’re not outsourcing their core competencies to you. So, they’re kinda bringing this stuff in and, you know, some other nonprofit or some other for profit, um, agencies aren’t so healthy for the wellbeing and sustainability of museums. Is- is this something that you’re consciously aware of and- and is it … is it … how important is that to the aspect off your work? Kind of onboarding these new skills?

Jen Brown:                 Yeah, I’m so consciously aware of this. (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:            Okay. Good. (laughs)

Jen Brown:                 Like as- as a … I’m so aware of this and I’m glad that it comes across like that because I- I- I can’t stand when it’s like a one off that takes away from … it’s a one off that is all bells and whistles. A one off workshop or a program that comes in and it’s like great now what? Like so what?

Jeffrey Inscho:            Right.

Jen Brown:                 And, that’s such a big question that we actually ask during workshops. Like after every activity I do with museums, specifically with everyone, museums specifically in this example. we’ll do the activity and then we’ll have a reflection. So, it’ll be, okay, so what? Now what? And, how that so what is like how does this apply to your every day? How does this connect with whatever area you’re working with in museums and how are you going to use this? Now what? When we did workshop for SFMOMA before they even reopened, I worked with all of the docents, educators, the- the term that they use is I think specific to SFMOMA. We’ve also worked with their visitor services. So, in this instance it’s just the people that are giving both public and school tours.

And, before they even opened we were talking about how we could continue to use this and incorporate this into every day programming when the museum reopened. I just came … I just was back at SFMOMA, they’re open clearly in May and come to find that some of the new- new class we’re doing a yes and activity and this one gentleman raised his hand and he said, “We already do this in the gallery.” And, the person that hired me Julia Chows says, “Yeah, Jen taught everyone how to do this.”

Jeffrey Inscho:            (laughs)

Jen Brown:                 “So, what you’re seeing is them doing it,” and, it was such a lovely moment because I tell people, I’m like, this is not proprietary. Like you don’t need me to do this. These are skills that even if you don’t work at the museum anymore, you’re gonna need to know how to be a better listener and you’re going to have to yes and someone in the sense of yes I hear you. So, I’m affirming what you said and I’m adding information instead of saying like, yeah, yeah, whatever, but here’s the real story. Well, actually here’s the real thing.

So, I- I really do believe in that idea of professional development and continuing education for staff, because if you give them tools to make things better and to make a change, then you don’t have to depend on all of these outside sources. I- I’m thrilled that if a museum’s like, hey, we do this all the time or we warm up in staff meetings with one of your activities. I’m like that- that’s amazing. Thank you for telling me so, I know that things aren’t going out into the ether. And, at the same time I’m always happy when I end up coming back and they’re like, hey, we’re doing this. Now what can we do next?

So, I see they’re actually … it’s like going to the gym. I see that they’re like doing the first set of workouts and they’ve plateaued. So, they want to one up it or do more.

Suse Anderson:          Yeah that’s nice. This idea of it being a platform where you can build on. A- a lot of what you’re talking about can really be sort of distilled down or extrapolated like … ex- extrapolated out to being about an organization’s ability to embrace change or transformation and to build on the change that’s been happening. Which can be pretty intimidating. Especially for, you know, the legacy institutions and also I’m sure some of the private enterprise you work with. Do you then see the work that you’re doing as really being more at that sort of meta level of organization change and transformation or is it much more about sort of tactical immediate skills and- and- and sort of is it of the moment or is it that really long term sort of organizational change?

Jen Brown:                 I think it’s both and I think it’s- it’s both a little bit in- in museums specifically because of how we run those workshops or how I teach those workshops; because I- I let people know from the get go. Say, I’m working with educators, I say, “Well some of these activities if you have a tour today or a program today, you literally could take this activity and do it immediately.” So, in that sense it’s affecting both the long and short game of we want our tours to be more interactive and we want our programming to be more audience centric. And, at the same time, I also do the idea of like risk taking in improv as a big g- goal that happens with museums or the ideas of yes and communication, and audience centric, and visitor centric. And, that’s more of a long game because you can’t change a behavior immediately you have to work on something like that.

And- and so, it’s a bit of both in the sense of they’re looking to be more interactive or looking to be more visitor centered; and at the … at the same time that can be something immediate because I’ve had people leave the program and go to give like a spotlight talk on an artwork, or go to give a program right after and I get an email that day saying, hey, I used this and it was awesome. So, that’s very immediate like I took this. I don’t feel like I have to work towards something. I can use it right away.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Hmm. So, that’s all … it’s just so fascinating. Um. Before we wrap up with you, Jen, we’ve been following the discussion online, on Twitter that’s kind of been happening over the past couple days about when and why people leave the museum sector. I think it’s, um, you, and Ally Rico, and, um …

Suse Anderson:          I think SEMA’s been part of it.

Jen Brown:                 Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jeffrey Inscho:            Jen, and … yeah and SEMA’s part, SEMA, previous guests have been part of it. So, can you tell us a bit about your transition from being an insider to and outsider, and maybe the factors that- that played into that to the extent that you can talk about it, and do you think that any of the resistance factors that we have talked about in- in this entire interview, things from organizational change, or whatever contribute to staff churn? Museum staff churn in- in some way?

Jen Brown:                 Ab- absolutely. I … I was extremely lucky with one of my museum positions. So, in New York for the … for people that aren’t familiar, if you want to teach, you freelance at a lot of different organizations. So, you’re not just at one place. If you’re at one place, you probably have a lot of admin responsibilities as well. And, even today outside of the museum field, I am not an admin person by any stretch of the imagination. (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah.

Suse Anderson:          (laughs)

Jen Brown:                 And, I’m comfortable admitting that flaw.

Jeffrey Inscho:            (laughs)

Suse Anderson:          (laughs)

Jen Brown:                 And, it’s okay. I- I really enjoyed the teaching aspect. So, I was jumping around with different organizations for years. Like, I was at the Frick Collection. I was at the Guggenheim. I was at the Queens Museum. I was at the Children’s Museum of Art. I was at the Transit Museum. So, in- in all of these different experiences I found that wh- when I was actually at the Guggenheim as an educator I was so lucky, because I was encouraged to take risks and what I was this- this outside theater perspective on things was actually encouraged and embraced by people there. My supervisors, my fellow educators and I think I was told no once there when I had an idea; and that was when I wanted to grow bacteria in a summer camp program.

Suse Anderson:          (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:            (laughs)

Jen Brown:                 So I was-

Jeffrey Inscho:            They said no?

Jen Brown:                 They said no and shocking. And, then they later … Sharon actually I’m sure remembers this, ’cause she called me later … emailed me later and she’s like I was just grossed out. You can do it if you want to; and I was like no.

Jeffrey Inscho:            (laughs)

Suse Anderson:          (laughs)

Jen Brown:                 I’m over this idea already. It’s fine. ‘Cause it was a Kandinsky workshop that we were thinking about.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah.

Jen Brown:                 So, we looked at … Anyways, there was art tied in. It wasn’t just growing germs in the Guggenheim.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Sure.

Jen Brown:                 And- and at- at the same time though, I- I saw in a lot my other organizations, as much as I got from the, I saw this inability to kind of embrace a new, or change, or try something different and not the same old, same old. So, when I … when I saw EE like being something that I actually could change and it was something more than just the- the few school groups that I ended up having, I could actually think about ha- having other educators really start to focus on working with their audience. And, I- I didn’t get that same opportunity with some of my other organization is the sense of even though I was on staff, I would be like, hey, I can totally lead a workshop for you guys; and people were like no. No thanks.

Meanwhile, my coworkers were like why do I have to pay to take your class? You work here? Like you should be giving it to us for free. And, I was like I have offers. Not happening. I don’t know what to tell you right now. (laughs) So- so, in the end it was this idea that I was like, I can do more as a … as a outside person than having to sort of answer to whatever powers that be. Whatever ideas that be as well as I knew for a certain extent that I was getting more and more outside of the box with a lot of my teaching. I- I knew that some of my improv activities and some of my theater based activities that I was proposing were … sooner or later would get shut down; and had been shut down at other institutions. In the sense of like, it’s too active. It’s too much. That’s not how we do things here.

And, that … I- I can’t. Stagnancy isn’t something that anyone’s really happy with deep down, and I definitely am not. So, when I … when I left it was less to do with the conversation that’s happening on Twitter right now. Which is fantastic with the idea of salary and- and this idea that museum professionals are not often taken care of for a much as experience that goes into it; and more to do with the idea of like, well, this is how we’ve always done it and we’re not changing. This is to different. And, for me it was like I had to step out in order to step back in.

So, when I stopped working at an institution as an educator, that’s when I think more institutions we’re like, hey, do you want to lead a development session for us on improv in the galleries or on communication. And, that’s when I knew that it would have a- a- a more of a lasting effect. So, I- I wasn’t in a position … I- I feel the salary thing. My husband actually works at a museum. So, I’m still very much embroiled in the museum-ness in that sense; and it’s … uh … it’s- it’s just this strange, strange world out there with museum people need to be appre- … We- we do so much. Otherwise it would just be stuff collecting dust.

I mean it … Visitor’s services, guards, e- everyone that touches the public, like that’s the opinion. People aren’t necessarily gonna remember the thing they saw. They’re gonna remember how they felt when they saw it, and all of that builds in. Like you got to a restaurant and you have a terrible waitress, you’re gonna remember the terrible waitress. Not the food, and same thing with museums. It’s all customer service in the end.

Suse Anderson:          Yeah. That’s fantastic. It’s funny you talking about what you can do and, you know, from inside and outside and, uh, part of … part of my thinking in when we were coming up with this episode is, of course, I’m not straddle- straddling this insider, outsider role as being back in academia but also teaching to museum studies. And, one of the reasons that I ended up going back sort of to this outside from within the actual museum was in part because I felt like I could make such … um … greater impact by being able to teach the- the next generation of people coming up through. As opposed to being within a single institution. So, I think there are lots of … lots of reasons why we have this sort of straddling between the inside and the outside.

Jen Brown:                 I think that’s- that’s a good … having that, having some outside perspective be kind of a connection or a core because I- I mean I tell museums all the time and I’m not- not afraid to say it from the rooftops about anything. Like we all need to stop trying to reinvent the wheel. Like take a wheel. Make it work for you and make it better. Don’t keep trying to create this next big thing. Like work on … work on what you have an make it … make it work and in that sense of people … Like sometimes museums get so insular. Where they’re not talking to one another. Like, we say we talk to one another at conferences and we know we don’t. And- and having like an outside point, a reference where people can say, oh, hey me too. Or, oh, hey I- I go through this too.

That’s why the Twitter chat sometimes are so incredible. Like I tweet museums. Being able to have like that connective tissue where people can have that me too moment. They can … they feel like they’re going through a similar thing.

Suse Anderson:          Yeah. Absolutely. Jen, thank you so much for- for joining us on the show. This has been really, really wonderful and it’s so nice to hear more about your work, but also your observations from connecting with so many institutions. Um. Both with in the sector and beyond it.

Jen Brown:                 Absolutely it was awesome to ha- … be here. Thank you guys for having me.

Suse Anderson:          So, that was amazing. They were two incredible interviews, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah. I, you know, I think the fact that they come from different de- … perspectives, um, balancing the artist intervention with-

Suse Anderson:          Yes.

Jeffrey Inscho:            … the private enter- enterprise and intervention really give a full picture of the impact that, um, outside thinking can have, uh, on- on a museum.

Suse Anderson:          And, how it uses actually a really important thing. I- I know that when I was sometimes working in museums, uh, seeing outsiders come in and hearing them be able to say things, um, with- with a different level of recognition could- could sometimes actually be a little … a little frustrating.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah.

Suse Anderson:          But, it’s also an incredibly important thing. I think Jen’s point that people actually speak differently, and they actually use different language, and they have these different abilities to, um, to interact because they’re not trying to balance, you know, the same dynamics that you are day in and day out … day out.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Right.

Suse Anderson:          Is a really significant thing.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah, and you know even that the, you know, the tactic of bringing in an outside voice to help tell the story or t- … or tell the, um, um, the … tell the mission that- that you … that you’re trying to move forward within your own institution is something that- that- that many of us in the museum sector utilize right? I- I bring people in and talk about, um, progressive ideas. The, um, to- to- to my museums and I hope that, um, the- the network of … of progressive museum workers can use each other in that way.

Suse Anderson:          Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Um. You know, e- … it doesn’t … you don’t have to be a huge, uh, museum community rock star but you know, bring in outside voices from other museums in your city. You know? To talk about things. Drinking about museums. All that stuff.

Suse Anderson:          True.

Jeffrey Inscho:            You know?

Suse Anderson:          Absolutely. I mean and even this is sort of part of the point of Museopunks right?

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah.

Suse Anderson:          Is that we get to talk to people who will push us and challenge us to think about our own practice, but also it- it … I mean it’s a great reason to talk to people who can phrase ideas differently, or who are just thinking about them with different background.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Yeah. Definitely. So, all of the things we talked about today on this episode links, uh, everything, uh, show notes can be found at Museopunks dot O-R-G.

Suse Anderson:          Yes, indeed, and we absolutely have to, as always, thank our presenting sponsor. Museopunks in presented every month by the American Alliance of Museums and we are so grateful to be working with you.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Thank you AAM. Uh. You can find us on Twitter at Museopunks.

Suse Anderson:          Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:            And, with that, Suse … I think we’re done.

Suse Anderson:          Is that it? I think we’re done?

Jeffrey Inscho:            We’re done.

Suse Anderson:          Amazing. I can’t wait to talk to you next month, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey Inscho:            Next month. Bye bye.


George Ciscle
Photo of George CiscleGeorge Ciscle has mounted groundbreaking exhibitions, created community arts programs, and taught fine arts and humanities courses for close to 50 years. He trained as a sculptor, studying with Isamu Noguchi. For 15 years he developed high school interdisciplinary curriculum and work-study programs for the emotionally disadvantaged. In 1985, he opened the George Ciscle Gallery where he promoted the careers of young and emerging artists.

From 1989-1996 Ciscle was the founder and director of The Contemporary, an “un-museum,” which challenges existing conventions for exhibiting art in non-traditional sites focusing its exhibitions and outreach on connecting artists’ works with people’s everyday lives. From 1997-2017 , as Curator-in-Residence at Maryland Institute College of Art, he continued to develop new models for connecting art, artists, and audiences by creating the Exhibition Development Seminar, Curatorial Studies Concentration and the MFA in Curatorial Practice.

Jen Brown (The Engaging Educator)
Photo of Jen Brown, The Engaging Educator

Jen Brown (Oleniczak) is the Founder and Artistic Director of The Engaging Educator. Through EE, her pedagogical approach of Improv as Continuing Education has reached over 25,000 people – all non-actors!

Since 2012, Jen has given three TEDx Talks on the power of Improv, grown EE to three locations in NYC, Winston-Salem, NC and LA, and recently began The Engaging Educator Foundation, a 501(c)(3) which offers free and low-cost Improv workshops for educators, at-risk adults, teens and students on the Autism Spectrum. Jen holds degrees and accreditation from Marquette University, City College of New York, St. Joseph’s University and Second City.

Currently, Jen happily resides in Winston-Salem with her husband, who she met while teaching an improv class – and no, he wasn’t the best person in the class, in fact, he was the worst.

Connect with Jen on Twitter @TheEngagingEd or check out her youtube channel or website.

Show Notes

How Mining the Museum Changed the Art World.

Artist Fred Wilson in conversation with Curator-In-Residence George Ciscle

The Contemporary

MICA Curatorial Program

Maryland Historical Society

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Episode 20: An Ode to Self-Care

Progressive museum work, particularly when focussed around community engagement, is often a form of emotion work that demands emotional labor. Museum professionals who are deeply engaged with the challenges of changing their institutions, negotiating a volatile political climate, or facilitating community work, can experience compassion fatigue, secondary traumatic stress, and burnout. So how can museum professionals look after themselves, in order to better care for their communities and colleagues?

In this episode, the Punks investigate the role of self-care in museum practice. Although the concept is often co-opted by marketing professionals as a kind of balm against open-ended anxiety, self-care first came to prominence alongside the rise of the women’s movement and the civil rights movement as radical, political act; a reclaiming of the body against a system that suggested it lacked value. Today, these ideas continue to resonate.

Suse Anderson:                    I’m gonna mute myself and go feed a cat.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     So, uh, did I tell you that I got um, that I, we got a new dog?

Suse Anderson:                    Ah, yeah, you did.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     And so, today’s his first day at doggie daycare. We’re trying it out ’cause we’re going on vacation this summer, and uh, they, the place that we take him has this uh, service, I guess, you can … This website you can go and watch like, the cam, on camera. (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    Oh, that’s amazing.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     So I have like a tab open. I’m constantly just watching. Is Buddy okay? Is Buddy okay?

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho :                     (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    That’s fantastic.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah. How’s you, how’s your cat doing?

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs) Ah, you know what, he really likes the house we moved into. ‘Cause now he … We moved into this spot, it’s got this amazing little courtyard in … Like in between all of the apartments and it attracts birds. So, he’s really excited ’cause he just gets to lay there all day and just watch birds.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    It’s the, he’s the happiest he’s ever been.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Cool. Pets are, pets are awesome.

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho :                     So, anyway we’re, we’re here. Suse, how you doing?

Suse Anderson:                    Good Jeff. How are you doing?

Jeffrey Inscho :                     I’m doing pretty, pretty well. Um, this is, uh, episode 20. Big uh, big milestone for us.

Suse Anderson:                    Hey, congratulations.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah, congratulations.

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho :                     We’re out of our teenage years and into, into our, uh, into our 20s, which uh, as anyone can say is a, probably a, a great time of life. (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    Absolutely. Time for maturation.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Right, right, right.

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Cool, so we have any, uh, any followup from the feed, from the last episode? I mean I think feedback’s been pretty awesome. Um, thanks everybody for listening.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, it’s been so nice. We, ah, I think people who follow us on Twitter would assume we put a call out for anyone who wanted a Museopunks sticker.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    And we had so many people contact us. And a few people have started sending back photographs of them using their stickers on their laptops and things, which is so nice.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah, that’s awesome. Thanks to American Alliance of Museums for hooking us up with those stickers. We do have some more, um, and we have some shipments going out at intervals, so … I guess if anybody wants a sticker, just uh, shoot us a note on Twitter @museopunks and we’ll make sure to get, get one out to you. But, I think we should probably do something for like the most creative display.

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs) I like it.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     That’s not like vandalism, right. (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs) I, I think that’s a great idea. So, uh, yeah, send us your photos and uh, if you don’t happen to have Twitter, that’s okay. We, there are gonna be other ways to contact us, I’m sure. Jeff, can people email us at Museopunks?

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Uh, they, they … When this airs they will be able to. So yes, we’ll set up something. Uh, just email

Suse Anderson:                    Fantastic.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    Yes. (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Um.

Suse Anderson:                    So what have you been up to for the last few weeks since we, since we started this show and since we last spoke?

Jeffrey Inscho :                     I’ve just been kind of checking out dinosaurs on Tinder really. (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Really. Um, yeah, I don’t … No, um, things have been really busy. We’ve um, at work we’re, we’re working on this chat bot project which is pretty cool. Um, kind of breaking the mobile experience out of an app and into system level, um, um, functionality of, on our devices. So, it’s a year long project that we just kicked off. We’re really excited about it.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, and you’ve been doing some research into chat bots and things, haven’t you?

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Well, yeah, and it’s interesting ’cause the, the whole project um, is supported by the Knight Foundation and they supported a year of research, development, um, human centered design. So, we’re starting right from the top, right. So we did um, we’re doing literature reviews. We’re doing kind of landscape analysis, and we’re doing um, you know, field studies of what our visitors actually want, right? (laughs) That’s one of those things that um, sometimes we don’t have time for. But, um, this project is nice ’cause it builds all that into it. So we’re taking uh, the first couple weeks, um, to, to really kind of dive deep into those things, yeah. Fortunate, yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    That’s … Really, really interesting. I think it might be something that we should revisit over the next coming months sort of what you’re finding out from that research. ‘Cause I think there is still this space for, for us to investigate further things like chat bots and how they work and what that response is, um, to a visitor, and those sorts of things. So, I’d love to hear more about this project as it, as it starts to come together.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah, definitely. We’re gonna be kind of documenting the process in real time. So, happy to chat about all that. How about you? The semesters have done, right?

Suse Anderson:                    Semester is done. Uh, you know what, I … So, this might seem very strange.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Are you just all like margaritas and bon bons this summer then? (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs) Ba, basically. I mean more mocktails than cocktails, but sure. (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Right, right. Oh that’s right, yeah, yeah, yeah. No, no margaritas for you.

Suse Anderson:                    No margaritas for me. No, you know, one of the nicest things. I had never been through a graduation with my own students. This was the first time I went through that. And something that might seem really weird since I have been to university so much myself is I avoided all of my own graduations. Um, I’m not quite sure what it is. I just have always found this certain awkwardness in graduating. And so, I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel having to sort of be on stage and watch my, my students graduate. And I cannot tell you how moving it is to see people have reached a point of accomplishment and uh, to really know your students and to have seen their journeys through learning. And then actually be able to see them graduate. I, I was really shocked by how meaningful it was for me seeing, yeah, seeing my students actually-

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    All graduate.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     I, you know, I can only imagine, you know just kind of having invested that much time and that much um, you know, um, uh, just dedication to, to seeing them through and seeing their progress, and then that final kind of like culmination point I’m sure has to be, um, uh, moving for them and, and you as kind of the one who is their, been their fearless leader. Or one of their fearless leaders.

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs) One, one of many. But yeah, I think I was really surprised by how, uh, impactful. How, how well you really do get to know students when you are working with them full time.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    It’s quite different from other times that I had taught, where I’d really had a lot, uh, different level of investment. And then seeing that go through. And it really got me thinking, in fact, about today’s topic we’re talking a lot about self-care, that I was thinking about community care and the role of, role of mentors.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:                    And how much, uh, having a group of peers or a, a group of colleagues or, you know, the, the importance of the communities that you surround yourself with, and how much that makes a difference when we’re starting to talk about things like self-care and just, (sighs) valuing yourself as well as your colleagues and your communities. And how, how much of a difference that makes in your, in your world.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah. So, you know, self-care is something that is very important and I’m really excited to kind of dive into that, um, this episode. But, I’m wondering Suse, do you, I mean, we all get overwhelmed. And I’m wondering if you have any, um, methods for kind of dealing with that, um, you know. We, we get overwhelmed with work or family or, um, you know, commitments, over-commitments sometimes. I’m just wondering if you have any ways that you personally kind of, uh, deal with that?

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, so, many years ago, about a decade ago I got so overwhelmed that I effectively had a, a little breakdown.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:                    I could not cope with anything. And it was, I think the first significant time that I had really understood um, what can happen to you physically, mentally, emotionally when everything builds up and you have not been making time and space for yourself. And when you have not been prioritizing what you need. Uh, that was the greatest thing to happen to me professionally in some ways. ‘Cause it made me much more aware of what, what my endpoints are.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    So I think, the biggest thing that I do now is just pay much more attention when I can start to feel those, um, the warning signs that hey.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:                    I’ve gotta stop saying no to things. You have to stop uh, adding things to what you’re doing. So, so, saying no has become, uh, I think the biggest thing for me. But it’s not something I do naturally or easily. It’s something I do once I start already pushing those, those boundaries.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    What about yourself?

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah, I um, you know. Something over, over-commitment is something that I struggle with, um. You know especially I think kind of working in the areas of technology and innovation, um, you know, it’s so fast. It’s so, moves so fast that I feel like you know, constantly have to stay up to date and constantly have to pay attention, and.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Um, it’s part of what I love about it. But, it’s also part of what contributes to, um, being over, becoming overwhelmed really quickly. Um. And I also think that you know, you, you and I and many of the people listening work in this space. Museums or non-profits, libraries, whatever, because we’re passionate about them.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Because we believe in them. And so, um, we tend to go that extra mile for them. Um, which is again, part of you know, why we do this. Right. But, um, the, their, a, you know. I, I definitely struggle with, with going the extra mile and, and being kind of over-committed overwhelmed, and so some of the things that I do, um, on a tactical level to kind of like reset myself you know. I, I, I step away from the computer. (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     You know, I move away from screens a lot. Um, you know, phone, I put the phone down. Sometimes I want to throw my phone in the ocean.

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Play guit, I play guitar. I, uh, you know, go out in the yard with the kids. Walk the dog, um. You know, that type of kind of just stepping away from the environment. Um, the, the, the digital environment, the screen based environment, does a lot for me. Uh.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah. I definitely understand that. I think there are some, a number of times when I would really like to step away from social media.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    But as someone who teaches on that, I don’t feel that I can.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    And so there’s these, there’s these tensions that I think we’re constantly fighting against. One thing, uh, being pregnant has actually made me much better with my self-care. It turns out that knowing that my self-care is going to directly impact the health of someone else.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    Has really, significantly changed how, uh, how I eat, how deliberate I am with, um.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:                    You know, things like taking vitamins and really sort of simple things. But their things that you, I certainly don’t prioritize for myself, uh, a lot of the time. And now, I have a reason to do that. And it has definitely helped sort of overall. And it’s been, it’s been such an interesting, uh, experience for me.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:                    To be putting someone else first in looking after my own self.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    But actually to have that have a real impact.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah, yeah. That’s an interesting take on self-care. You know, it’s self, it’s self care for like the next couple months. (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs) Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Um, anyway. So we’re talking with um, some interesting people, uh, related to this topic. Um, we’re gonna talk with Seema Rao, who is with Brilliant Ideas Studio. She has some interesting ideas around the politics of self-care. And then, we’re welcoming back, uh, Beck Tench who, um, was a guest on Season One, uh, one of the live shows at MCN in 2013. But we’re a, we’re asking her back to dive a little bit deeper into mindfulness and intention and, and caring for, for oneself when they’re … Kind of potentially overwhelmed or, or over-committed.

Suse Anderson:                    Seema Rao is the principle and CEO of Brilliant Ideas Studio, helping museums, non-profits and libraries bring their best ideas to light. Brilliant Ideas Studio specializes in content development and strategy, change facilitation and inclusive community building. With nearly 20 years of museum experience M. Rao has extensive experience in interpretation and programming for leading content development for all audiences. She’s used many of these teaching and drawing skills to facilitate meaning-making experiences. In her recently published book, Self-Care for the Resistance, a Workbook for the Socially Conscious and/or Stressed, available now through Amazon. And she’s currently working on a followup book focused on self-care for museum workers. Seema, welcome to Museopunks.

Seema Rao:                             Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Suse Anderson:                    It is so, so great to have you hear. So, we’re talking today about self-care. But, if we’re going to discuss this big topic, we should probably start with a, a bit of a definition. What is self-care? What do we mean by this term, and how do we practice it?

Seema Rao:                             So, I think it’s an interesting question, um, because it should be defined by your self. So, you, you might have a different definition in self-care. Part of it is knowing what makes you feel like you’re a little, feeling a little bit better. So, I, um, might have a very definition, very different definition than the both of you. I would guess if I asked you right now what makes you feel a little bit rejuvenated, each of the three of us would have a different definition.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Seema Rao:                             Um, and so, for, for me in the book I was sort of, and in all the writing I’ve been doing, in all the things I’ve been thinking about, um, particularly it came out of my own stress, uh, I guess since November. During political seasons, I’ve always been really political. I had to figure out what it meant to make me feel better. And so not, um, and my definition is, for example, different than my husband’s. You know, I might really enjoy reading. And for me that is, that’s what it is. So, both of us looked internally. I guess self-care, a good definition would be, you look internally. You think a little about what you think makes you feel better. You try it. Um, and then, then you try it again. And as you get, um, better at being able to check your emotions and understand how you feel, then you yourself build your best definition of it.

I don’t know does that make sense? Am I sort of talking around it?

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah, no. I, I think it does. Um, Seema. So, how, how do you realize or identify when, when you’re in fact in need of self-care?

Seema Rao:                             Yeah, that’s a great question. And I would say, um … So, I was raised a Hindu, and I don’t usually think a lot about faith. But one of the things that, that um, that my parents used to say is that um, suffering is partly because you, you need to realize that you’re suffering. And you’re suffering because you have desire. And so, while I’m not terribly religious, I think one of the things I realized is that like, hey, I don’t feel really good, and it’s not physical. You know, like I was just constantly agitated. I couldn’t read the news. Um, my husband and I, this sort of … Actually the book grew out of this fact that my husband and I decided that we, in November, we wouldn’t listen to any media for 30 days.

Suse Anderson:                    Wow.

Seema Rao:                             Anything. No Facebook.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah, yeah.

Seema Rao:                             No Twitter, nothing.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Wow.

Seema Rao:                             And it was because we felt like our, I felt like I was gonna crack. Like, you know, and I think that, the thing about self-care, thinking about your emotions as your emotions and your physical self are so connected. And so, you often have physical manifestations to me that make me feel bad. And for some people it’s different. I mean, I, you know, we’re all different human beings. We deal with things differently. So, you just figure out if it’s either that your brain feels a little fried. I read this thing recently about self-care that involved um, this great graphic. And that, that you felt like your brain, the, um, ideas in your brain were tipping out. Like it was truly full, like a cookie, you know like a cookie jar was full. Um, and it could be that.

Or you could physically, for me it felt like I was … I felt like I was constantly holding all this stress in my um, neck and in my shoulders. So, I would say, to answer your question Jeff, you would have to answer when you feel sort of like something is off.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense. Ah, I, I know recently I’ve been going through just some stressful things with some personal changes in my life.

Seema Rao:                             Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:                    And it’s, I get snappy. It, it’s the time when I just know that I, suddenly don’t have room in my self to be generous anymore. And that’s where I start to notice that, oh, hang on, something is out of whack here. The, you know, the force is out of balance within me. So, I think um.

Seema Rao:                             Balance is a great word. Not, sorry, not to interrupt you.

Suse Anderson:                    No.

Seema Rao:                             It’s always hard when you can’t see the person. But, um, balance is a great word. I think it’s like when you know what your best you is, and if you’re out of balance you need to put yourself back towards your best you. So, it could be for some people exercising more. In fact, I’ve been walking the dog, and I’m not really an exercise person. But I’ve been doing that, not because I wanted exercise, but because I wanted to be outside. Because I used to be outside more. Not, and so it’s not, it wasn’t that I needed the exercise, it’s that I used to be outside more. Or whatever it is. And so it’s balance, I think that’s maybe … Self-care may be is when you take yourself to a point where you feel balanced again. Maybe that’s a good definition.

Suse Anderson:                    So, you were talking about how, you know, the book started to come about. And I know that a lot of the really influential work around self-care has come out of marginalized communities which consider sort of looking after the self and the body, uh, when it’s under attack from various forces as a political act. And in your own book, you do talk about this relationship between taking care of the mind and the body and honing political action. So, I’d love for you to talk a little bit more about this relationship between politics and self-care and what that meant for you. But also what it means for other people.

Seema Rao:                             Um, so I think that’s a, a great question. And it’s interesting because self-care has become like a real, um, kind of buzz word right now. And I, I probably, because so many people are you know, and I’m, I was actually very careful, and I will say this even generally. When, when, when I … I used to work in a museum for, you know, almost 20 years, and I don’t personally want to take a political stance in my public work job. You know, you have, everyone has their own political stance. And so the book even doesn’t take a decision on which, you know, what politics, what things in political life are the right things. Because, again, it goes back to you defining yourself.

Um, but for me, and I think that the thing about any activist, and there’s you know, a number of great quotes by people who are activists. And I pulled a few for the book, but I have a like a whole slew of them, um, that I just sort of look at every once in a while. Anybody who wants to make a change in the world can only do it if they’re at their best. And so, for me, I realized you know, I have two young daughters, and I wanted them to raise, be raised. My family had, I grew up in a very political family for generations, and my par, my grandparents were raised during a colonial state, and so that, that …

There was always this belief that you have to make the best of the world. You have to do something good. But in order to do it, you have to basically be able to stand up. If you’re so incapable, so upset, so emotional, you won’t be able to do that. And so, in order to make the best in the world, you have to be the best you. And so that’s sort of where a lot of my ideas grew out of and, you know, like I, I’ve made sure that my daughters understand and are able to articulate the best them. That’s something that I think self-care also says. It’s not about, um, you know, jammie time on the weekends. That could be your self-care, but that’s not the only thing. You have to be able to articulate and be able to act in ways that make you feel like you’re doing the best things you should do. And for me, that happens to be political.

Um, and political in the broadest sense of things. You know, I think in some ways working in museums is a political act. Because we, we’re … Politics in that you’re making a stand for arts. And I do, that’s an important part of, you know, my beliefs that I believe in museums. I believe in cultural good. And so, to be the best at doing that, that means that I have to not be burned out and um, in fact, I think I went to, um, working in a different kind of, part of the museum world and the consultant world partly because I knew I could make a better good if I was in a better place. And that, that’s sort of how I think of it. I think of any act that you do to make the world better is political.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah. And hearing you talk about politics and hearing you talk about being hon, kind of open and honest about the, the buzz word.

Seema Rao:                             Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Nature of, of um, self-care. Do you think that it’s recently emerged around this idea of politics. I mean, I, I, I think about after the election. Like I kind of, I like you, I took 30 days, 45 days.

Seema Rao:                             Nice.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     And just took, tuned out, you know. Um, it, it … Does this political nature feed into, um, how self-care has become such a dominant public idea?

Seema Rao:                             You know, I’m like … I’m terribly suggestible. Like, if you said to me right now, we’re not in the same room. But, if we were in the same room, and you said, you know, I have a cold. I would definitely feel like I had a cold. So, I don’t know. But I think that there is something about that. That people are very, humans are social and we’re suggestible. And I think that negativity breeds negativity. And a lot of political situations, um, you know, starting in November, but even before that. You know, the, the … There’s so much media about the election and afterwards. And I all, so I think that there was a huge number of people who felt negative.

And so, my hope is that it’s not just, you know, a buzz word, but actually that all collective, a huge number of people thought, wait a second, we’re all out of whack. And we all have to do this better. Um, so, I, I think it does grow out of it. I also think it probably grows out of other things like, um, the fact that uh, so many, there’s sort of the backlash about being, you know, on so much social media. I love social media. But then you also feel yourself isolated. And again, I think people put themselves in, trying to find balance from these factors. So, politics or social isolation. And self-care is sort of the natural growth of it because people, I …

I mean, we want, we want to be the best us, you know. And I don’t know if, it’s sort of … I’m trying to talk around it because I don’t want anyone who … I’m not answering your question kind of on purpose, um.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah.

Seema Rao:                             Because.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     No. No.

Seema Rao:                             Because, because I don’t want people who aren’t feeling political but also feel like they need to have self-care to feel like they can’t. Because the thing about this book and about sort of in the, the sort of feeling I’ve been in since the, since about January. Since the march actually. Is that I want people to feel open arms. And for me, self-care is incredibly open. And so for me it was political. And for me, and a lot of my friends who were using these, before I put it into a book, my husband, my kids, my you know, friends. I was giving them these sheets of paper and these practices that, um, it was political for them. But somebody might come to this book and not have been political. And I don’t want them to feel like, um, then this is not for me. You know, and I’ve had people say, you know, there are people who want to opt out of politics. And I might personally not be able to do that, but I don’t want them to feel like this is not a good idea for them. Because self-care is a good idea for anybody. But, certainly if you’re somebody who’s political you’re gonna feel, um, stressed and need it. Does that answer it?

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah. I think that makes a lot of sense. I think one of the things that I’m hearing you saying when I, when I read about self-cares, one of the ideas … There’s often a relationship between self-care and empathy. And when I hear you.

Seema Rao:                             Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:                    Sort of say, oh, if we were sitting in the same room, and I knew you had a cold I would feel like I had a cold. That’s sense that, um, there’s constantly a giving, uh, of ourselves to other people and one of the ideas that this starts to bring up, pref, uh, sp, specifically in a professional capacity is this idea of compassion fatigue. So this notion that you are, um, particularly if you’re doing say, work that’s community focused and you’re, you’re constantly seeking to, uh, work with others and put yourself in the position of other people. Uh, we get this, this notion, whether it’s personally or professionally, of this sort of compassion fatigue from witnessing, uh, the pain of others. From participating in the work of changing institutions. So, even when it’s not explicitly political, there is still this opportunity for exhaustion.

So, I guess, that’s then, starts to make me wonder how we care for other people and make room for the needs of others. So, it’s whether we work with them or interact with them, those in our museums and coming into our museums, even when we’re actually feeling quite exhausted.

Seema Rao:                             Oh, this is such a hard question. Um, yeah, I know. And this is what I, I’ve been reading a lot of sort of the literature of empathy. I think in some ways, um, to go back to the previous question about politics. Self-care is in some ways easier. Because you are yourself. I mean, admittedly, like you could be somebody who really has a lot of denial issues and you might (laughs) have a really hard time figuring out what makes you happy. Um, or what makes you feel centered. And you know, you have to work through all those. But, you are with yourself all the time, right? So you eventually either do or don’t.

But, empathy and learning to connect to other people, and then also being able to connect to them is so much harder. Because, you know, I can, you know … I think about people who maybe you want to be empathetic to, but they have so many barriers. You know, they just are so prickly and they’re just so difficult. And you, and you know, it’s hard for some people like I would say for me. You know, we all have our personal failings. I would say for one of my personal failings is that while I try to be empathetic, sometimes I can’t be empathetic without putting it through my filter. And a lot of people, humans have this failing.

So, I don’t think I’m alone, but, you know, learning to try to um, not own other people’s grief. Not own other people’s histories. You know, we all have things that make us, whatever it is that makes, makes your family, makes you, makes your experience, um, feel somewhere in society. Maybe marginalized. Maybe you don’t feel marginalized but maybe you feel empathetic to marginalized people. Whatever it is. And so I don’t know exactly the answer. I would say though the, the one thing I’ve been sort of thinking a lot about is, where, where do send, how do you put yourself in that position? Where do you put yourself in next to that person? Do you put yourself behind them? Do you put them, yourself … Do you center yourself in the conversation? Is it all about you? Do you put yourself to the side? You know, those kinds of things that where you’re basically reflecting on your actions are a good place to start.

Um, I, I think that empathy … A lot of people think that they’re empathetic and they’re in fact sympathetic.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Hearing you talk about exhaustion and you know, knowing the importance of balance on our lives … And, and I’m gonna speak generally here. But I kinda get, I kind of feel like museums are really good at, at being additive.

Suse Anderson:                    Yes.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     At adding things on on top of other things, and you know. But we can’t always do more, uh, because our resources aren’t additive. So, in, when we think about self-care, in your opinion, how can we strategically begin to start to take some things off of our plate?

Seema Rao:                             Yeah, that’s a great question. And I will say that um, I don’t know that I’m wonderful at saying no. I’ve tried to teach myself that, and um, one of the things … But I, I think that the first thing you need to do is be like … Well, you have to do what I said. You have to say to yourself, okay. So this is not a strong suit. Some people are very good at saying no. And really bad at saying yes. And that’s also has its downsides. So you start by saying, okay this is where I am on the no/yes boundary situation. This is where I am on, um, deciding on where priorities are. Because I think that’s what you’re sort of talking about.

Like in a museum, every bit, if you … Especially if you’re in a big comprehensive museum, and I know that at least the three of us have worked there. You know, lots of people who are listening obviously work on that. Your audience is everybody. And if you work an institution that has the name of the city in it, then that is your audience. You know, if you think about it. Or if you have a website, then the whole world is your audience. (chuckles) You could, you could be as expansive as people in, in the world are.

And so, then what you need to do is first as a person, teach yourself, um, to try to think systematically. Like, where can you do the best? Where is it that you probably aren’t needed? Where is it that your department isn’t needed? You know. And I say this, it sounds very cavalier, right, because I have … I don’t, um. There’s probably people listening who are the lowest. You know, you’re the person who doesn’t get to make any decisions. And so then, that’s … You know, it’s easier when you can make decisions. But, actually when you’re not making decisions, it’s your self-care and your decisions matter more. I always think that institutions, um, the people who have the most face time with the visitors. You know, like visitor experience, and guards, they are actually making the experience the people know. More than any, almost, you know, even, they … The directors don’t see the visitors as much as the guards do, usually.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Right, exactly.

Seema Rao:                             And so, their decisions really matter. And so what they can do, for example, is um, they can say yes to having a positive moment there. They can say yes to, um, just being in the moment and not checking their email at that moment. You know, it’s sort of like instead of saying no to things, where can you say yes to? You know, it’s like a code switching. And that’s what I’ve been working a lot on, just personally, to make myself feel a little bit less out of control. And when I, when I … I just left the museum, my museum job in February. So, you know, just striving to say, well, okay I’m saying yes to this really good experience for our visitors. And no to these bad ones.

You know, like you, you just sort of trying to think, okay, it’s um … Maybe imagine a, um, uh, a scale. You know, and you’re thinking okay, well, we could have 25 mediocre experiences or five really good ones. I could say no to five really terrible things and yes to two really wonderful things. You know like as you think about your life and your choices, um, like I could have chosen to not be on this podcast. Or I could chose to be on this podcast. And for me, it was a really great choice. ‘Cause I get to talk to really, you know, I was thinking. I get to talk to two really cool people. And I get, you know, get to talk about things I really like. And so, instead of um, thinking no to something, I was thinking what is the positive and what is the negative?

Jeffrey Inscho :                     We’re happy you said yes, Seema.

Seema Rao:                             Thank you, thank you.

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs)

Seema Rao:                             I am too. I am too. But, I mean you know, I mean, I’m thinking you guys. I mean you guys, we all make choices. And you know, you lead people, you teach people, and you know, you, if you think about all the times you’re saying no, often. Or, and I said no, certainly. Um, every time that you’ve probably said no in a thoughtful way you probably made a really good choice. You know, like you’ve got to a certain place in your careers. You’ve obviously made a lot of good choices. I bet that the nos really came out of something very thoughtful.

Suse Anderson:                    Ha, it’s funny you say that. Before I mentioned that I think when, ah, the way that I know that my, uh, that I’m out of balance is that I stop being generous. I become much better at saying no at that moment. So, I think my natural impulse is to say yes to things. And yet, it’s only once I start finding myself, um, stressed and unable to imagine how I can fit this thing I’d like to say yes to into my life. That’s when I get really good at saying no, so, it, it’s funny. I’m still not sure that then my balance is correct. Um, because it’s not until I’m under pressure and under stress that I start to figure out when exactly to start saying no. So I don’t know whether I need to be more deliberate earlier or, uh, whether actually that is my way of being in balance.

Seema Rao:                             But, it’s true right. Like the yes and no, it’s, it’s hard. You know, it’s hard because … It’s like and I, I’m trying to think of other analogies other than a roller coaster. But, you know, that there are so many experiences in life where if you’re paying attention to it, then you’re probably not at the best moment. Like, you know, you’re just … It’s like when you’re writing about love, or you know, you’re just … You’re not, you’re not really in it. And it’s when you’re really in it that you don’t even realize it. So, you know, like, I was saying that when you go up the roller coaster, you’re noticing you’re going up the roller coaster. When you go down you know you’re going down. But, it’s at that peak moment that you’re not paying attention. And you’re just in the moment. And that’s sort of yes and no. Like if you know that you’re saying a lot of yes, that means you’re kind of conscious.

And so self-care is a lot about it is, like the book or any of these books. And I mean I like my book, but I think there’s lots of good ways to do it. Um, but, but you know, like I’ve been um, doing different activities every day at noon, and I’ve been tweeting them, um, when they’re fun. And I think it’s like, I’m teaching myself. And so when you’re teaching yourself you’re very conscious of it.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Sure.

Seema Rao:                             Like you’re teaching yourself to say no or to say yes. And once you are actually doing it, you sort of not notice that you’re now good at it.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah. So, Seema I’ve, I know you’re working on a book about self-care specifically for museum professionals. Can you give us any tidbits there, or leave us with any top tips maybe for, uh, for museum professionals that you’ve, that you’ve, will be included in the book?

Seema Rao:                             Well, um, it’s interesting. I’ve been talking to a lot of people. I’ve been doing a lot of interviews with people. I don’t know if I’m gonna be using them or not in there. I’m kinda figuring out how to do it. Just to hear about other people’s experiences, so that it’s not just all about me. Um, and so some of the things that I really like that the people were saying … And it’s in- I’m not sure how I’m gonna take this. It sort of goes back to, um, some of the things we’re talking about. That like humor, and you were saying snapping, but sarcasm is for a lot of a … I mean I talked to a lot of museum people. I’m somewhat sarcastic. You know, humor, those are the kinds of things, um, people have been sort of talking about that sarcasm is sometimes a powerful tool for humor. So that’s one thing I’m sort of thinking about.

But at the same time, it’s sort of, I’m trying to be very open to that. So, I, because I’m taking other people’s advice. I’m trying to be open to all of them, you know, empathetic and thoughtful. Um, so that’s one. A bigger thing that I’ve been working a lot about is, um, kind of taking the, the tactics of appreciative inquiry, which is one of the sort of strategies people use for, um, strategic planning for example. And it.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Hmm.

Seema Rao:                             What it does is it starts with and what I really like, and actually, I’m hoping to um, try it out with some people, uh, before I write the book. I’m gonna do more case studies. I’m gonna have people try these tactics. More than just me. But, so I’m hoping to try it out this upcoming month. But, um, you start by kind of diagnosing a positive core. So, in an institution what you do is you work collectively and you all talk about what’s best about your institution. And um, I’m guessing many people have been through strategic planning. Often you start with what’s wrong with your institution. Um, and so appreciative inquiry flips that.

And so I’ve been thinking a lot about this for self-care, and I’ve been trying to find x, experiences that I could um … The book it will be like my previous book in that it has drawings and it’s sort of like a workbook. It’s an active experience. So, I’m trying to figure out ways to frame this. Where you would start with your positive core. And kind of talk about what you’re best at in visual and in text and in, you know, trying different ways of getting people at, understanding what they’re good at. And then after that, then you take a path that goes through um, your goals. And then, then sort of future-casting. So, you know, if it’s good for an institution, and I did do a little bit about this, um in the first book. I asked people to write their own personal mission statement, it’s those political people.

Um, but you know, even museum people, we, we, we all have such great ambition. And my goal for the book is that you’re able … That I want people to be able to find out what’s best about themselves, um, away from just the mission. Because one of the, the reasons I wanted to write the book is that so many of us, and I would say myself included, that we often um, devalue ourselves for the mission of the institution we’re working for. And that, you know, and just in small ways. You know, like I would say to my husband you know on a Sunday. I had to work on a Sunday. The girls had music. And you know, I can’t go to their music lesson, I have to work.

Well, do I have to work? I mean you know, and … I mean have to work … I mean obviously we all have to make incomes. But I also was choosing it. And you think about all these choices that you make. And I think I want people to feel, if they have … If they want to do that that’s okay. You know, if you want to overwork, that’s your choice. Um, I want to make sure that people are making that choice consciously. That they know when they’re choosing the mission, and they know why they’re doing it.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah. I think that’s a super interesting, uh, way to, to even think about what the choices that we make. And the priorities that you put forward. That actually we are often, you know, coming from mission driven places. And that can be really hard when you care about the mission. But you also care about the people in your life, and you care about yourself. And you care about your community. And if, in choosing one thing it means sacrificing some of those other things, whether deliberately or not.

Seema Rao:                             You know, I think also for you, as a teach, as a professor, but also a teacher. You’re, you’re profess, you’re obviously, you know, at a university level, but you are their connection to the field. It’s so important for … And I was an educator. That for us, in those positions, you know, what you just said, it’s so true. That we have to be conscious of our choices. Because we’re not just making our own choices. We’re sort of modeling this for other people. Um, and that, that’s a big part of it for me too. That, that so many of the educators are the ones who are real burned out. And we’re the ones who are really interacting with people and you know, we want to make sure that the field is, is healthy. And so being healthy as teachers is really important.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah, definitely. Um, Seema, thanks so much for, for taking the time to chat with us today. If people wanted to keep in touch with you, or follow your work on progress on, on the books, um, where can they do that?

Seema Rao:                             So, my blog is at BrilliantIdeasStudio/blog. And so that’s a good place to find me. I’m also on Twitter and I’m kind of obsessive about it. And I’m artlust.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     (laughs)

Seema Rao:                             I’m (laughs). I know.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Aren’t we all?

Seema Rao:                             It’s horrible. But, um, I’m artlust A-R-T-L-U-S-T.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Awesome. We will put links to, um, your Twitter and your website in the show notes. And Seema thanks again.

Seema Rao:                             Thank you guys.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     We really enjoyed this.

Seema Rao:                             Have a great day.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Beck Tench was formerly trained as a designer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and has spent her career helping people and organizations of all types embrace risk taking, creativity and change through technology and personal space making. Her work has been mentioned in the New York Times, National Public Radio, Scientific American, and several books and blogs. Some of her favorite work was done in partnership with the Museum of Life and Science, the Exploratorium, Michigan State University, Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, and Illinois State Library. In 2016, Beck began her studies as a PhD student at the University of Washington’s Information School, where she researches contemplative practice and information science. Beck, welcome to Museopunks.

Beck Tench:                            Thank you. I’m so happy to be here.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Well, we’re happy to have you back, actually. You were, ah, you were a guest at, ah, during our first season in one of the live shows at MCN.

Beck Tench:                            That’s right.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Montreal. Yeah.

Beck Tench:                            That’s right.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     It was a great, great time. We’ll drop a link to that in the show notes. But, it’s so great to have you back on the show. And part of Season Two.

Beck Tench:                            I’m glad that you’re back.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     (laughs) We are too. We are too.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, it’s nice to be back.

Beck Tench:                            The museum world needs you.

Suse Anderson:                    (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho :                     (laughs)

Beck Tench:                            More of you. It has you, but more of you.

Suse Anderson:                    Hey, hey. Beck can I just say, because you are, I think our first repeat visitor, I’m gonna get to use the phrase friend of the pod for the first time ever. (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho :                     (laughs)

Beck Tench:                            (laughs) I’m so happy about that. And also just having that status. As the first repeat visitor is such an honor.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Right on, right on. So, Beck, last summer in summer of 2016, um, you and I exchanged hand written letters kind of exploring the topic of mindfulness and intentionality in museums as part of the Code Words Essay Series. It was great. Um, and so much of that exchange was actually happening at a very turbulent time for me professionally, and, and … The simple act of kind of stopping to reflect in a mindful way, um, with you, really helped me kind of navigate that time in, in a productive way. So, first of all, thanks for, for being a part of that with me. Um.

Beck Tench:                            Of course.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     And second of all, let’s start this discussion today kind of on the ground floor. So how did you personally begin down this path of mindfulness and intention?

Beck Tench:                            Um, well, Jeff, actually I’d like to, to react for a second to what you just said to, um, to, to acknowledge that your decision to engage in that, um, that exchange that we had was, uh, I think a piece of wisdom on your part. And I, I just hope that you, I hope you see it that way too. That, that you needed that and you made that happen for yourself. Um.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah.

Beck Tench:                            And, and, that’s, I think, kind of partly my story.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Beck Tench:                            It’s something that you can see in hindsight. Um, a lot of times I’m going along and, um, (laughs) and just absolutely full of doubt and questions. Uh, those doubts and questions are evidence of the real work that I need to be doing, and it just doesn’t often feel like, um, it doesn’t feel like it’s the right thing at the time. And, and I look back I can see that it, that it’s exactly what was needed and I just basically need to continue to trust myself to do the right thing. Make space for myself to do that work and, and, and it will happen.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Hmm.

Beck Tench:                            So, um, I think that what you, what you experienced with Code Words and what I experienced and how we were there for each other and not really understanding in the moment what was needed is, is very evocative of what contemplative practice actually is.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Beck Tench:                            It’s a, it’s an openness and a trust.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     This kind of reflective practice, um, I, I, is it rooted in kind of intuition or following your gut, or um, learning from previous ah, experiences, or a combination of all of that. I mean how, like … How does it work for you?

Beck Tench:                            Yeah, thank you for that, that qualifier, for me. Um, I think it absolutely is intuition. Um, you know, there’s something about what we’re cultured to believe is okay with regards to work, um, that is problematic. Um, and I think that, I, I’m seeing that in this new field of academia. Um, and it’s certainly the case here, where sort of rationality and science thinking and evidence and all of those sorts of things, um, are very important. And, and, and, um, and respected and you can’t really. You have to incorporate them in how you communicate otherwise you’re not really seen as, um, doing the right work. And I, I felt that way in the museum world too. It’s everywhere in our culture.

Um, and so whenever you, you, you do things … We say … When you make statements that make intuition real for example, (laughs) uh, you know, it’s something that we get and we know, and at the same time we don’t feel like we can say. So, I’m gonna, I’m gonna just flat out say, yes, it is intuitive and reflective. Um, and that, that time spent respecting those two states, state of intuition, state of reflection, is critical and important time. And it’s not critical and important because at the other end of it you will be smarter or more productive or more efficient. It’s critical and important because you’re a human being living a life. And we have to incorporate these things, and the more and more I study about it, the more sure I am of that. And the larger the forces at play convincing us that we shouldn’t seem.

Um, and so, I guess what I have to say about that right now is, no one listening to this should feel, um, guilty or ashamed or embarrassed that they don’t value and don’t make time for themselves. Because that’s sort of what we’re inculturated to do. And it’s an act of, um, resistance.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Hmm.

Beck Tench:                            An act of self-care and a very, very important thing for us to be figuring out ways that we can tell each other how we feel about that. And how we struggle with it. And help enable each other to make that time. Just like you and I did last summer.

Suse Anderson:                    Beck, I find this incredibly interesting, this idea that, um, sort of these embodied experiences, but also these really intentional and deliberate experiences, are not necessarily valued, and not valued in a lot of contemporary work places. But even, whole professions. Why do you think that is? Is it a lack of trust in the body? Is it that it can’t be rationalized in the same way? What do you think is at the root cause of this?

Beck Tench:                            To be (laughs) really kind of frank and morbid, Suse, I think that the root cause of it is the fact that we walk around the planet aware that we’re gonna die. And we’ve …

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Hmm.

Beck Tench:                            Want to do whatever we can to distract us from that. And um, to sit with our selves and to face … Because, you know, that’s the problem I think with a lot of this McMindfulness, is a nice phrase I’ve heard.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Hmm. Yeah.

Beck Tench:                            That gets kinda spread around is it does not honor the fact that when you truly go there, it’s hard. And, and it doesn’t necessarily feel good. And you really have to wrestle with truths. Which is why, at the beginning, I said that, that statement about how doubtfulness is sort of a sign that it’s working. Um, for me at least, because, ah, can, just being in a contemplative space really just means being with myself in that moment. Not distracting myself from, um, the reality of any given moment. That reality may be suffering and sadness. That reality may be boredom. That reality may be joy that I dont’ want to let go of, and want to keep on forever. You know, whatever it is, and uh, there’s just so many things in the world. Um, a lot of them exist on our phones. (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah.

Beck Tench:                            That are just, just waving their hands ready to take us away from that reality, and allow us to not really deal with the harder, harder things in life.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah. So, Beck, um, one thing you wrote in the Code Words exchange that really hit a nerve with me, and along the lines of, of what we were just talking about is we need to stop elevating being busy and in demand and over-committed.

Beck Tench:                            Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jeffrey Inscho :                     And especially in the museum/non-profit sector. You know, we pride ourselves on those things. Doing more with less, right? Less money, less staff, less time. What are some things that people can do to start to, you know, combat this culture of over-commitment for themselves? You know, are there any kind of, um, simple exercises or just maybe ways that we can flip our thinking a little bit to start to, um, honor, honor the need for more space?

Beck Tench:                            Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, you know, I, I think that the answers, whatever they are, and I don’t have them, um, but, but I have some ideas. I think that, that the answers reside in two domains. The one domain is the individual and the other domain is the collective. Um, and so I don’t think change is possible without both. And, and I think that there’s a starting point that’s easier, and that’s with the individual.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Sure.

Beck Tench:                            So, my, I guess my, my advice and my caution is that you cannot do it alone, and there is so much to be gained from having connection with others with regards to wrestling with making time. I mean we’re talking very bare bones. Like how do you even give yourself five minutes? It’s, it … Like that same culture that I was talking about before that sort of distracts us all the time it also gives us self-esteem. Um, and, and it, it helps us feel like we are part of something and that we’re important and that we belong in the world and that we’re needed. And, and those things aren’t entirely you know, Mr. Burns in some closet, or some boardroom you know, rubbing his hands together trying to convince us of things. It’s just like, we’re creating this for ourselves because we need to know that we’re okay.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah.

Beck Tench:                            And so, and so we, you know, whenever I quit working at the Museum of Life and Science and went on a two year exploration of what work would look like if I were more spacious about things, I really wrestled with not feeling like a valued and valuable member of society because I didn’t go to a work place every day, or wasn’t busy in the ways that I used to be busy. It’s very, um, like I said before with you know, engaging in contemplative practice, and it being kind of like a hard thing. Making time for yourself, um, and, and, and … And letting go just even for a few minutes of this identity we build around being very needed is hard work.

And um, and so, I, I recommend that um, I think that, that ritual is, is a very, very powerful thing we can borrow from some of the more successful religions of the world. Who use ritual and community very, um, very successfully. Um, you know, my rituals honestly are, are very coffee (laughs) focused. Like, I, I love coffee. Coffee, is something that brings me, you know, just, it feels like, um, such consistent, reliable happiness. And, and so, I take something that’s already … And I think for some people that might be, uh, a dog that they walk, or, or some you know, commute with, with on their bicycle or, or with their child, or whatever it is. But, you’ve got this sort of centerpiece that feels reliably good. And then I, I tack on a contemplative intention to either proceed or go after that experience.

So I, I ritualize things that are very easy to do.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah.

Beck Tench:                            In order to, to, to just, just bank a little time on one end or the other. Or a lot of time. Um, to, to enable myself a reliable space.

I also, you know, right now we were talking before we started recorded about the fact that I’m on Bainbridge. Well, Bainbridge is far away from the University of Washington. It’s a two hour door-to-door commute. That is, of course, with bicycling. I’m bicycling and taking a ferry instead of a, a bus or a train or whatever. Um, and I, I engage in this four hours a day. Um, and, and, and it is, um, it is my life. It is not my commute. It’s my life. And, and I think that that shift in thinking to, to realizing that what, what exists in that time is, is completely as valid an education and connection space and thinking space and being space as any other thing that I do. It’s not getting me to school. It is my life that I am living.

If we start looking at all these little like interstitial moments of our lives as, as potential possibilities to be open to connection, to be open to just noticing the world around us, there’s actually a lot of, I think, time available for us to make choices that are more intentional than just sort of, um, prescribing that this is an activity I do to get somewhere and so it no longer has value in, in, in kind of like a, edify me in any kind of way or allowing me some time and space.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah. You know, Beck, I’m, I’m gonna keep kinda pointing back to this Code Words essay from last year. And you know, I, I think one of the really interesting questions that came out of that for me was um, you know, this idea of … You know, what if our institutions matter a lot less than the individuals who are in relationship because of them? And we’ve been …

Beck Tench:                            Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Talking a lot about internal experiences, right. The work, the workplace, and self-care, in that respect. But, you know, the reason that we work with museums is because of, of, of the impact it can have on the public and the visitors and the communities that our museums are a part of. So, I’m wondering if, you, you’ve noticed, um, ways that museums or museum practitioners could potentially create spaces that could contribute to the emotional wellbeing of visitors and communities and the public? Um, any interesting observations, you’re now kind of being out of the museum world, in academia, looking in from, from, from that view that you’re noticing?

Beck Tench:                            Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, um. So, feel free to scratch this and edit it out if you, if you find it’s a little too controversial, but uh, my reaction to that, uh, to that question is … What I begin to see in my observations of the museum world and also in my memories of my experiences working for museums, um … And this isn’t, you know, whole cloth, but it is, it is certainly there, is a, is a really strong growth mindset and always trying to figure out how to scale and, um, stay alive. And, and by staying alive make money. And I just, I feel like that, that sort of money driven, attention driven, um, perspective is … It’s, it’s … It needs to be questioned, and, and we have a bit of uh, we’re, it’s a bit at odds for, for, for what we’re trying to do.

I mean, I felt that way specifically about technology in the Science Museum. We pulled off some really cool projects. But we spent a lot of money and a lot of time trying to engage people in ways that just putting a table with some blocks (laughs) on it could have in some ways done a better job.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah.

Beck Tench:                            And, and I think that as we look at our institutions and our, um … Our motivations for how we interact with folks, we have to really, I think examine where is money and scale influencing and guiding what we’re trying to do? And really asking the question, what are the values that are informing that? Um, and being honest with the answers. I think that a lot of technology is built with really good intentions. And it manifests in the world problematically. And so, when we’re thinking about our role as museum practitioners, uh, I think that we need to basically play the doubting game with our own work.

We, we’re, we’re really good at playing the believing game. We’re really good at convincing ourselves that we are creating something for the public that will enrich their lives and we know better. And it wouldn’t, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for us to look at things from a different view, and say, you know, what if this didn’t exist? What could this person do with their time? And how can we enable that? Or does this really, you know, in all the ways that we can look at it, does it really ultimately end in what we think it ends in?

Um, it’s so hard to be a technologist right now. Technology just, it’s outta control. Like, when we put it into the world people do things with it that we would never imagine. And that’s in the best case (laughs). Like in a lot of cases, they don’t do anything with it at all.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Right.

Beck Tench:                            And, and so, I just, I think that the complexity of that picture is something that we need to be engaging with and be a little bit more critical and honest about, to be frank. And um, I say that because if we are, and we say we need to do less, then we have, um, more agility and, and, and more time to be thoughtful about how we do engage with people and we don’t just paint everything with this sort of magic that, uh, this magical tech, technology brush that uh, isn’t necessarily gonna, gonna do what we think it’s gonna do.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, it’s sort of, as you talk, it really reminds me of the importance of time and space and the, you know, there is … Everything we add into our institutions, everything that we add into, um, what we’re trying to do that we ourselves have been feeling this rush of busyness is also things that other people, that our audiences, that our visitors, need to fit into their lives.

Beck Tench:                            Exactly, exactly.

Suse Anderson:                    So.

Beck Tench:                            That’s exactly what I was trying to say, Suse.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, absolutely so we, we sort, we were just talking to, uh, Seema Rao, and we were talking a little bit about balance and the importance of balancing your life. And, and saying yes and saying no and I think bringing this sort of back to the audience and to, to the choices that we make, you know … We, we’re sort of reaching a point where it’s so difficult to fence off areas of our life because there is this sort of professional and personal blurring. And there’s this public and private blurring. And so thinking about how we create, um, we actually simplify that for ourselves, but also for the people who are coming to us. How we give them maybe fewer choices but richer choices as opposed to just more and more choices. Whether that becomes a better use of sort of institutional time and resources. As opposed to, uh, trying to do everything and be everything for everyone. Looking at how and where we’re actually utilizing our resources, and how that brings a difference into their, into audiences lives and where we can be most useful and most beneficial.

Beck Tench:                            Absolutely. And you know, I recently gave a talk at, uh, at a conference called Art Summit. It’s about creative place making. And I found myself wanting to really scaffold the talk. It was a workshop. Really scaffold it and provide as much, (laughs) kind of like, as much content as I could in those 90 minutes, you know. And then I, I kinda looked at what I had done and realized that in my experience of, of, of moments where I felt like I was in capable hands of a facilitator and teacher, there wasn’t … There was, there was an openness. There was not all this content totally structured and coming at me. There was a competency in the person sitting in front of me to handle whatever would come up, and then a big open invitation for that to occur. And, and so, I just scrapped all of it, and I went in with basically a really solid question. And then, had a great conversation over 90 minutes with people who were incredibly articulate and totally available to have a really good conversation. Because it was at the heart of, you know, what we’re all thinking about.

And, and I, and I think that all of our institutions have a mission that is at the heart of what it is to be human, frankly. It’s probably true for every single institution that is listening to this podcast. And that if we just trust people to show up and fill space that we provide, that space is so rare in life.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Beck Tench:                            It may be, it may be a little awkward at first, but that awkwardness is beautiful. And if you just sit with it, I think that we have a lot to provide by just being open and trusting and providing space, and not filling it because we are scared that people won’t fill it for us. I mean, I think there’s really something to be said for that. And I really appreciate that comment, Suse.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     You know, Beck, I think we could talk forever to you about this. There’s so much to dive into and, and, and explore. But if listeners want to stay in touch, or follow your work, or um, you know, just kinda stay up to date with your, your thinking and your practice, where might they be able to, to do that?

Beck Tench:                            Um, well, you know, I’m very Googleable. is sort of my, my, my online home. Um, and I have also started a (laughs), I’ve started a Slack channel, uh, or Slack group that is about contemplative practice. And it’s, it’s, it’s a real, um, it’s a real experiment. I very well may just scrap it one day because it’s so counterintuitive. (laughs) We, and that’s actually one of the, the, the primary conversations we’re having right now about, uh, on the Slack channel. It’s about (laughs) the irony of using Slack to do something like this. But, anyway, uh, so Contemplatives, that’s plural, um, uh, is a place to uh, to go to uh … I don’t know actually if … You may need to um, go to my website to get an invitation to it. Um, so, how about and I’ll do whatever I need to do to make sure that that works to a signup form. Um.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Cool.

Beck Tench:                            But uh, that’s also a play space to think together. Um, but you know, to be, to be real, I’m, I’m in this space where people are talking and publishing, and sometimes saying things when there’s nothing to be said.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.

Beck Tench:                            We just, (laughs) to get something out there and so, I kind of you know, if you don’t hear from, from me online, not meaning like if you contact me, I’ll of course reply. But, I’m trying to actually listen more than speak these days and just, um, sit with my thoughts a little longer than I normally would. And be very intentional about when I publish and why. Just because of exactly what we’re talking about. The more that we, you know, kind of grope for attention, even if we think it’s for really good reason, the more we are filling, uh, a finite resource. What, what, what the human brain and senses can attend to has limits that, um, we’re, we’re approaching. (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah.

Beck Tench:                            And, and so I, I kinda don’t want to contribute to that as much as possible. So, happy to meet up and you know, have conversations over email or Skype or whatever. And all that’s on my website. But, I’m trying to be a little bit more quiet these days.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Well, we definitely appreciate you taking the time to speak and be unquiet with us today.

Beck Tench:                            (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Um.

Beck Tench:                            Of course, of course.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Beck, thank you so much.

Beck Tench:                            I, I, I am happy to any time. I think the two of you are wonderful. I’m glad you’re doing this work, and I’m honored to be a part of it.

Suse Anderson:                    So, I don’t know about you Jeffrey but I feel really, relaxed and really good having had those conversations.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     (laughs) Yeah, definitely. Uh, you know, it’s uh, it a … Taking time to reflect and step back and, um, consider these things you know, always puts me in, in a, in a positive frame of mind. So, I’m glad that, I’m glad that it, it’s doing the same for you right now. (laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, absolutely. And I think, there was a point that Beck made during her, her um, discussion where she said people often can tell that she brings mindfulness practices into her world because she is exceptionally mindful even in her conversation. And I do have that feeling just from talking to her of, ah, I can, I can take this time and just be a little bit more deliberate myself.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah. Definitely. There’s something, there’s value in slowing down. There’s value in, in being intentional. Um, so show notes for this episode uh, can be found at Um, and this episode of Museopunks is presented by the American Alliance of Museums. Thanks to AAM for the support. Suse, if somebody wants to stay in touch with us, or tweet us, where can they do that?

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, on Twitter we are @museopunks, uh, and we would love to hear from you. As I say, having the response from people over the last month has been amazing. It’s so great to have so many people getting back in contact with us, and new people connecting with us for the first time. So we would really love to hear from you.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah, it’s amazing, those new people are great.

Suse Anderson:                    We’d love to hear, uh … Totally, absolutely, and it’s a … We would love to also just hear how you refocus, recenter, look after yourself when you’re feeling emotionally drained or physically drained or when work gets overwhelming, and if your museum has actually started to bring in any of these techniques. I know some museums have done.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    Yoga classes for their staff and those sorts of things. We would really, really love to hear about it.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Yeah definitely. Tweet us @museopunks and just a reminder that you can subscribe in iTunes or Overcast or Stitcher or any other podcast, um, app, that uh, that is your podcast app of choice. And if you do enjoy the show, we’re really love, um, just taking a moment to rate because that does help, um, enormously with, with spreading the word. Um, Suse.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho :                     Episode 20 in, in the bag.

Suse Anderson:                    In the bag. We are done. Ah, we will catch you again in a months time from now, and we cannot wait.


Seema Rao
Photo of Seema Rao
Seema Rao is the Principal and CEO of Brilliant Idea Studio (BIS) helping museums, non-profits, and libraries bring their best ideas to light. BIS specializes in content development and strategy; change facilitation; and inclusive community building. With nearly 20 years of museum experience, Ms. Rao has extensive experience in interpretation and programming from leading content development for all audiences. She used many of these teaching and drawing skills to facilitate mean-making experiences in her recently published book, Self-care for #TheResistance: A Workbook for The Socially Conscious and/ or Stressed, available through Amazon. She is currently working on a follow-up book focused on self-care for Museum workers. Seema tweets @artlust.

Beck Tench
Photo of Beck Tench
Beck Tench was formally trained as a designer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication and has spent her career helping people and organizations of all types embrace risk-taking, creativity, and change through technology and personal space-making. Her work has been mentioned in the New York Times, National Public Radio, Scientific American, and several books and blogs. Some of her favorite work was done in partnership with the Museum of Life and Science, Exploratorium, Michigan State University, Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, and Illinois State Library. In 2016, Beck began her studies as a PhD student at the University of Washington’s Information School, where she researches contemplative practice and information science.

Check out Beck’s website, or connect with her on Twitter.

Show Notes

Jeff’s new puppy, Buddy | Instagram

Museopunks Stickers!

Royal Ontario Museum’s T-Rex Teddy on Tinder

No App Required: Toward a Utilitarian Museum Mobile Experience

Brilliant Idea Studio

The Self-Care Guide for #TheResistance

Museopunks @ MCN2013: Communication Breakdown w/ Beck Tench

Mindfulness, Intention and Museums – CODE | WORDS: An Series of Epistolary Romances

Beck’s contemplative practice Slack experiment

We’d love to hear from you! How do you refocus and recenter when emotionally or physically exhausted? Hit us up on Twitter and share your best solutions with us.

Never miss an episode! Subscribe to Museopunks on iTunes or Stitcher

Episode 19: The State of Love and Trust

Don’t call this a comeback! After an almost three-year hiatus, Museopunks returns to explore progressive museum practice. How much has changed since the ‘Punks last hit the airwaves? Does Jeffrey have any new tattoos? Has Suse lost her Australian accent?

In this first episode of season two, the ‘Punks unpack the trials and tribulations of trust with Dr. fari nzinga and Adriel Luis. Report after report indicates that public trust in institutions is plummeting. The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, which surveys more than 33,000 people across 28 countries, showed the largest-ever drop in trust across the institutions of government, business, media and NGOs. Meanwhile, the Economist’s Intelligence Unit downgraded the US to a “flawed democracy” in its 2016 Democracy Index, due to erosion of trust in government and elected officials.

Museums have traditionally appeared to be cushioned against drops in trust. The American Alliance of Museum reports that museums are considered the most trustworthy source of information in America. Yet a 2013 UK study on public trust in museums showed that although museums are highly trusted, there was “a strong sense that if they started “telling people what to think” or became spaces for controversial debate, this might damage their integrity.” What does this mean for our institutions at a time when there is increasing pressure on public institutions to promote social justice, and intervene in political and social discourse? Join us to unpack these questions and more.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, let’s, let’s do this whole bit.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah. Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    Let’s start that again.


Jeffrey Inscho:                      Suse.

Suse Anderson:                    Jeffrey.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      It’s 2017.

Suse Anderson:                    How did that happen.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      I don’t know, but it feels good to be back.

Suse Anderson:                    (Laughs) It really does.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      How are you?

Suse Anderson:                    Good day. I’m (laughs) doing well. How are you?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      I’m doing, I’m doing okay. Yeah, it’s, it’s, uh, it’s like they say it’s like riding a bike and it, it is.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah. Who would have thought that podcasting would be the exact sort of thing that you can, uh, drop for a little while, a bit of a hiatus and pick up and still feel really at [harmon 00:00:48].

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, a little bit of a hiatus. How long, what was it, three years?

Suse Anderson:                    Three years.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Wow.

Suse Anderson:                    A lot’s changed.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      A lot has changed in three years.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Um, what’s new with you?

Suse Anderson:                    Oh, um, just about everything. I think (laughs) last time we had spoke I had just arrived in Baltimore to work at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:                    And that ta-, ti-, time just about everything in my life has changed. I am no longer at the BMA, although I am still in Baltimore. I am now an assistant professor in the museum studies program at George Washington University, which is-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Nice.

Suse Anderson:                    … fantastic. I am really loving teaching on museums and technology, but also museums and visitor experience, which is really lovely.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Cool.

Suse Anderson:                    Uh, still in Baltimore, though, so I guess that hasn’t changed, but, uh, married. There’s a, there’s a little, uh, kid on the way later this year.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      What?

Suse Anderson:                    So, I, yeah, the, uh, the world-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Holy cow.

Suse Anderson:                    … has definitely changed.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Wow, a lot has gone on with you in the last three years. That’s all awesome stuff, though.

Suse Anderson:                    Absolutely. Yeah, it’s all very exciting stuff. What about you? Tell me what’s been happening?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      What’s been happening with me? Uh, professionally I’m still in Pittsburgh. I am, uh, I’m running the studio here at Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, which is kind of like the design, development, and workflow laboratory for our four museums. It’s really, um, inspiring, creative, uh, fascinating work. Um, yeah, so I think we’re, I mean, personally the kids are getting bigger, you know?

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Playing some rock and roll again, which is good.

Suse Anderson:                    Excellent.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      But, yeah, I know, but I’m super stocked to be, um, talking with you again. It’s, uh, something that I did miss over the years and, and looking forward to, uh, getting back into the swing of things and, and, and, and exploring, um, some really interesting ideas here in Season Two of Museopunks.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, you and me both. So how did we get back together? Tell me a little bit as to why people are hearing our voices again.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      So, yeah, it was, um, you know, it was, it was one of those things where we were, uh, we were doing our things for a couple years and got a really great email from, uh, from Liz Neely at AAM, uh, and, uh, she basically asked us, you know, would we ever think about doing version 2.0 of Museopunks. And, uh, I think we both kind of jumped at the chance, right?

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, absolutely. It’s so exciting to be back doing the podcast again and also doing a podcast that this time around is presented by the American Alliance of Museums. I think if you were to ask me about aspirations for this podcast when we’d started, I just hoped that someone would listen. I never-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    … imagined that this would actually become something that may live on a professional body [inaudible 00:03:43] as well as, as well as doing something that we just both get to love and explore what it means to be a progressive museum or a progressive museum practitioner.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, so-

Suse Anderson:                    Do you think that’s something that’s changed for you over the last couple of years? How different do you think what you’re thinking about now is from when we last did this?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      I, uh, you know, I think a lot has changed in the sector, um, when it comes to thinking about, um, progressive ideas. You know, when we started this in 2013, um, you know, progressivism, at least for the focus of this podcast, was, was squarely rooted in kind of digital at this point.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      You know? A lot of our, our first 18 episodes were really focused on, on digital pro-, progressivism in the sector, and I think over the years, um, and, you know, some call it post digital, some call it, um, other things, but I think the, the holistic nature of progressivism is permeating through areas of the museum, um, you know, outside of digital into education, obviously, and, and curatorial and it’s all kind of mingling together with these really forward-thinking ideas. And so, you know, in my opinion I think that’s really where, where I’m interested in, in, in exploring. I don’t know, what do you think?

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, I agree. It’s sort of been funny. Th-, the time away, sort of this maturation period has also been my time living in a different country and-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:                    … in a country that’s really been going through a lot. I mean, I think internationally, the world has been going through some really interesting times and interesting conversations lately, but we have … I think the conversations now that we are having and that we need to be having are very different from the ones that I would have said were, was important three years ago. I think technology, uh, while still hugely important for being a catalyst for a lot of these decisions, I think my emphasis on it and my thinking about it, I started to get a very different relationship to where I think technology fits within, um, sort of, within the complexity of these discussions.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah. You know, I think, um, Season One is, is … will serve as a nice snapshot of, of, of where thinking was at a point in time for the museum sector-

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      And hopefully Season Two, um, you know, you know, five years down the road you’re looking back at Season Two and, hopefully, you know, it was serve as that, as that snapshot in time. Speaking of snapshots in time, Suse-

Suse Anderson:                    Yes.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Uh, and doing some research for this first episode, um, uh, I, I noticed that our last episode was published on September 29th, 2014.

Suse Anderson:                    Uh-huh (affirmative).

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Do you know … I, I did some triv-, let’s do some trivia. Do you know, uh, what the number one song in the United States was?

Suse Anderson:                    (Laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      On September 29th, 2014?

Suse Anderson:                    I really don’t, but I’m going to … Ooh, had, had T. Swift’s album dropped by that stage?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      It was right before T. Swift.

Suse Anderson:                    Oh, okay. I, I don’t know. I, I will say I went and saw her live in concert, and that was pretty amazing.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    But, uh, okay. Tell me, what was, what was the number one song?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Okay, it’s just starting it’s eight-week reign at number one. It was “All About That Bass.”

Suse Anderson:                    (Laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (Laughs) You know, Star Wars had not been rebooted yet.

Suse Anderson:                    Uh.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      We were still six months away from the launch of the Cooper Hewitt pen.

Suse Anderson:                    (Gasp)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      And Donald Trump was still a wealthy real estate developed in New York City. So a lot has changed.

Suse Anderson:                    (Laughs) A lot has changed. I had not even experienced my, uh, my first Halloween living in America by that stage.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (Laughs) Right, right, yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    Or my first Thanksgiving. There have been many changes (laughs). Wow.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, well, it’s good to be back, and so what, what are we, uh, what this epis-, first episode, what are we going to be talking about?

Suse Anderson:                    So one of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot is, you know, we’re talking about some political changes, as you just mentioned. Uh, last time we were on, there was a very different political, uh, space in terms of the President, et cetera, here in the US. And the last couple of months I’ve been noticing report after report after report which is really looking at how public trust in institutions has been plummeting in recent years.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:                    And, you know, that’s often thinking about government and business, but it’s also reaching out to, um, non-profits, non-governmental organizations. In fact, in 2016, late 2016, um, there was even one particular scale that dropped America to the level of a floored democracy given the erosion of trust in government and elected officials. Now, museums have often been, um, I think saved from drops in trust, but I really wanted to talk to you and, and, and some guests-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    … to, to think about what these huge institutional shifts in trust mean for institutions. Are museums still trusted? What does the nature of trust look like? And how does this, how does the new political environment start to create different shifts for us as organizations?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, I mean, it’s such an important fundamental topic for, uh, for museums to really think about. Um, and so we’re (clears throat), we’re very, um, fortunate to, to have some … A couple really great guests this episode. Um, we’re going to talk with Dr. fari nzinga, who is doing some interesting, uh, writing on the topic of public trust and art museums. And we’re, we’re also going to talk to, to Adriel Luis, um, from, uh, the, uh, Asian Pacific American Center, uh, in DC.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Who, who is thinking a lot about how, uh, and, and whether museums, in fact, trust their public. So two sides of a very interesting, um, issue there.

Suse Anderson:                    Absolutely, so why don’t we get into those conversations now?


Jeffrey Inscho:                      Fari nzinga was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, and graduated with a BA from Oberlin College in 2005. Fari earned both her MA and her PhD in cultural anthropology from Duke University. Having lived in New Orleans since 2009, her dissertation explored black-led, community-based institutions using art and culture to help achieve their social justice missions as well as the political economic landscape in which they operate. For two years she worked as the public policy officer at the New Orleans Museum of Art where she attempted to facilitate institutional transformation around issues of transparency, access, inclusion, and equity. Currently, fari is an adjunct professor of museum studies at Southern University at New Orleans, one of only two historically black colleges and universities to house a masters level museum studies program in the United States. Fari, thanks so much for, uh, talking with us on Museopunks.

fari nzinga:                              Thanks so much for having me.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Oh, our pleasure. Um, so I think Suse and I both discovered your work at MCN last year, uh, in New Orleans where you gave a talk called public trust and art museums. Um, and to the thesis of that talk really hinges on the nuanced differences between trust and public trust. Can you explain how these are different for our listeners?

fari nzinga:                              Sure. Um, I think that trust in interpersonal relationships is a two-way street and the way that public trust has been defined has largely been from within the art museum sector itself and hasn’t really taken to … into account, um, all of the contributions that audiences and other stakeholders are willing to make or wanting to make. So it seems to me like public trust in the art museum context is, is really, is really a, a way of thinking thoughtfully about why they’re doing what they’re doing on behalf of the public that they’re serving. Um, and so sometimes it can be a bit aspirational and sometimes it can act like a justification, um, but I think that for art museums in particular, or museums that have collections in particular, um, public trust is really about understanding the time scale in a way. Like everything we’re doing isn’t just for the now and isn’t just for today, but is really about preserving things so that the next generation or however many generations down the line people will still be able to look at these objects and interpret this information.

Suse Anderson:                    That’s a really interesting idea that public trust was defined for the public and not with the public, whereas you took that sort of interpersonal trust as being a two-way street. Do you think these ideas are mutually exclusive? Do we need to have, um, an inter-, sort of interpersonal trust in order to have public trust? Or are they such different ideas?

fari nzinga:                              Well, I do think there’s overlap and I … especially in museums that have a very close relationship with the communities that they serve. Um, and I do think that public trust should take into account the, um, the ways in which the public wants to interact with and engage with museums. So I see that museums over time are opening themselves more and more to understanding the visitor experience and to, um, really having conversations that try to move their practice forward, whether that’s, um, curatorial practice or whether that’s, you know, a new innovation in terms of exhibition design or technology, um, that helps, you know, make things accessible to people. I really do think that, hopefully, you know, we’ve been in a kind of 30-year period of conversation, so hopefully 30-something is the charm-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (Laughs)

fari nzinga:                              … and, you know, we (laughs) can really start to put some of these ideas into action.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      You know, wi-

fari nzinga:                              And some of the best museums out there are already doing that.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, most definitely. Um, you know, when I think of the term public, I think, you know, um, it’s so broad, right? And I, I come from kind of a communication background where there’s a general saying that there’s no general public. So, you know, what, what do you think museums can do to start to learn more about their public, um, and the communities and, and the, the people, um, and really start to identify who it is they’re, they’re serving?

fari nzinga:                              Well, one thing that I learned when I was at NOMO wh- … Our offices were in the basement of the museum and all the fun stuff happens on the first, second, and third floors. So what I had to do, even though, you know, I felt tethered to my desk on so many occasions, was really create reasons to go outside of my, um, office-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

fari nzinga:                              … and to get out of the basement and to see with my own eyes the visitors coming in and the field trips and how people are interacting with the space. Um, how people are interacting with each other in the space. And even going outside of the museum wholly and, um, talking to folks who don’t necessarily frequent the museum, but who are very much involved with arts and culture in the city or in the town where the museum is located. So I really do think that museums have so much, um, fertile ground that’s been … that hasn’t been tilled just yet in terms of going outside of their own walls to meet people where they’re at and to understand, you know, what it is that they want and how they would like to engage.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, it’s interesting that you say that. I mean, you’re, you’re also just talking about people going inside their own walls and really spending time watching their visitors, talking to their visitors, and being with them, which it shouldn’t be a rare practice, but in some ways it actually is that notion of getting away from your desk to go and spend time with visitors often seems to be quite a rare one. But, I guess that also then brings up this idea that part of what we’re talking about when we’re talking about things like public trust is an element of access and access can be, uh, right across the museum. We can talk about the physical space to digital collections. What do you think are some of the key areas of access that when we really open them up can impact how museums serve their public and serve the public trust?

fari nzinga:                              One of my favorite quotes is by a woman named Anna Julia Cooper and Anna Julia Cooper was a black American woman who was born, um, enslaved, and who over the course of her lifetime eventually saw freedom. Her mother was enslaved to her father, in fact. And, um, Anna Julia Cooper would go on to graduate from Oberlin College, my alma mater, um, and write books and attend international, um, conferences around issues of Pan Africanism around women’s rights and she said, “When and where I enter the whole race enters with me.”

Suse Anderson:                    Mmm.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mmm.

fari nzinga:                              And she was talking about the ways in which when you offer a seat at the table to a black woman, she’s not just going to represent her own interests, but she’s also going to represent the interests of the young people and the children in her community, the men of her community, as well as the women of her community. Um, and I think that that quote for me is so powerful because it rings so true. And she wrote this in 1892, by the way.

Suse Anderson:                    Mmm.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mmm.

fari nzinga:                              Right? And it’s 2017 and I see, um, and I see museums as a place that can greatly benefit some people having access to go into that space on an equal footing, not just as visitors, but behind the scenes-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Right.

fari nzinga:                              … in order to make some decisions, in order to contribute to the conversation being had about art and culture, about civic engagement, you know, about some of the great Democratic values of our time, if you will.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (Laughs)

fari nzinga:                              Uh, which I think that a lot of times museums love to tout themselves as these kinds of citadels where this heady intellectual, you know, thing is going on in the background even if they’re trying to make it accessible to the everyday person by not using language that could, you know, be confusing or exclusionary or what have you. Um, so all that to say that I think issues of access really … We do them a disservice when we speak only of, A, the physical plant, or, um, B, the visitors who are able to, you know, be in the physical space because a museum is a physical space, but it’s also the ideas that animate that physical space. And so when you don’t have people at the table behind the scenes-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

fari nzinga:                              … constructing those ideas, deconstructing those ideas, representing those ideas, engaging with them, interpreting them, and so forth, then you really get a very monotone narrative that puts people off, and in turn, makes visitors feel as though that’s not for me. And that’s where you start to see issues of access really jamming up the works, you know?

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

fari nzinga:                              But it starts at the root, not at the level of the diversity of your visitorship. That’s really just a symptom.

Suse Anderson:                    Fari, I think it’s really interesting to hear you talk about that. One of the things … One of the lines that really stood out to me, uh, in the piece that you wrote about public trust and art museums was this line that, “The trust of the public is earned when an art museum is seen as an authority on matters of artistic excellence.” But then when we talk about inviting people into the door and not just into the building, but actually behind the scenes, I sometimes worry, or not worry, but I’m, I’m curious about how those different ideas relate to one another. Do we … Is the museum still seen as the authority at that point when you’re, um, when you’re sort of handing over that authority? How does that work?

fari nzinga:                              Well, I think that’s a really interesting conundrum, but as a, as a professor when I am talking with my students, they always remark to me, you know, it’s so interesting that just by virtue of being in a museum an object becomes more valuable. An artist becomes more valuable, an idea becomes more valuable, right? And, and, you know, we may not have any idea what that object was because guess what? We might not have anybody who is culturally competent enough to judge whether this object is of artistic excellence, right?

So I think the anxiety that people, uh, have around, you know, if we let more people in, will we be lowering the quality, is really, um, it’s the wrong question to be asking, you know? I mean, you know someone smart when you see them. You’re not just inviting any old person into the space and say, “Here, have access to all of the treasures and the resources that we have.” You’re making a, a judgment and you’re going out and you’re trying to look for people who are going to have something to contribute, who are going to, um, also believe in the value of excellence, right? I mean, some people don’t believe in excellence. Some people don’t believe in perfection, right? It’s just a question of, you know, good enough.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Right.

fari nzinga:                              And then some people really strive and always want to push themselves, and those are the people that you try to find and those are the people that you try to partner with, and every community has that.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

fari nzinga:                              Unfortunately, that is not reflected in the museum sector, but that doesn’t mean that (laughs) they don’t exist. And I, I think that I speak for myself and for many other people when I say, “I’m tired of hearing museum workers, and especially people in leadership in museums say, we just don’t know where to find these people. Well, where are they? Are there qualified people out there who can do this?” Right, it’s like hello, yes (laughs), yes there are people of every race, of every sexuality, in every geographic region who are smart and interesting and have something to contribute. And if you can’t find them, then that really says something more about your skillset …

Suse Anderson:                    Mmm.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, for sure-

Suse Anderson:                    … than it does, you know, about their lack of numbers or their existence or nonexistence.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, and to, you know, speaking, you know, to your point of what is included or enveloped within the museum or within the organization as, as conveying meaning or value, if you look at what is not, right? I mean, um, there’s, there’s definitely, um, work to be, work to be done there, um, at, at, kind of analyzing the semiotics and meaning around, um, a lot of that. And speaking of, of, um, 2017 and the, you know, the status of things as it is at this point in time, you know, I look back at your MCN talk and realize that that was given mere days prior to the presidential election here in the-

fari nzinga:                              Yes.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      … United States.

fari nzinga:                              It sure was.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      And we, we all know how that turned out. Um, but how does this heightened level of polarization or uncertainty that we’re experiencing, um, you know, throughout the fabric of our society impact, um, the public’s ability to trust institutions in a way, you know, be it government or be it museums? Like, how is, how is the s-, the situation that were, that were living in impacting things in your opinion?

fari nzinga:                              In my opinion, everyone’s on edge (laughs).

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

fari nzinga:                              Everyone’s suspicious. That’s what polarization does, you know, it’s like, well, if you’re not on this end of the pole, then I have to be suspicious of you because I don’t necessarily believe in the spectrum. Um, and so the spectrum becomes unintelligible and I don’t know what to make of anything that’s not, you know, what I understand it to be, my position. I think that in this time museums have a tremendous amount of power that they can wield if they choose to. It’s the same amount of power that they had before Trump was elected, but this can add some urgency to it. Um, people want to know that institutions are indeed thinking of the public’s best interests. And one of the things that I think is a little bit upsetting is that, um, there … People want to kind of stake out this neutral territory and I think that’s very dangerous. And I think that that has gotten the museum sector into the jam that it’s in now, quite frankly. It’s so neutral that for scores of people who would be natural, you know, members, supporters, visitors, um, what … Not stakeholders, but what’s the word?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mmm.

fari nzinga:                              Board members, right?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Sure.

fari nzinga:                              People who would naturally because they’re into the arts they’re upwardly mobile. They have a certain class status, a certain educational background, right?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

fari nzinga:                              I mean, that’s what we’re talking about when we talk about the museum community or the museum sector.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Fari nzinga:                             Well, every race has this, every sexuality has this, every ethnicity has this, and every geographical region has this, right?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

fari nzinga:                              Um, however, the public always is assumed to be neutral and that neutrality always takes on a racial, uh, understanding, right?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (Laughs)

fari nzinga:                              I don’t have to tell you what it is, but I bet you can guess it when we’re talking about the public, what does that mean and who then begin to envision in your mind as your every person.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Right. So, you know, looking back at this MCN talk, you, you know, you, you really astutely point out that, that libraries have been making great strides and kind of earning higher, higher levels of credibility by championing the rights and civil liberties of those they serve. And I, I might even go further and say that I think this is, this progress is really due to the fact that libraries have kind of successfully transitioned into a, into a service model, right, with a-

fari nzinga:                              Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jeffrey Inscho:                      … a primary focus on providing access to knowledge for everybody.

fari nzinga:                              Yes.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Um, and so do you think, you know, A, do you think museums might learn from this, uh, transition to a service-

fari nzinga:                              I sure hope they will.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      And ho-, how? I mean, uh, you know, is there, are there things we can look to and point to and say, um, yes, this, this is where we need to pivot and this is where we should be, um, working toward, you know?

fari nzinga:                              Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Um, uh-

fari nzinga:                              Yes. So one thing is, um, when museums talk about diversity and inclusion, or they talk about cultural equity, or they talk about, you know, expanding their publics, um, you know, it’s, it’s not enough to just talk about it, but, um, you have to actually make those audiences aware of the fact that, A, you would like them to be, you know, at your table.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

fari nzinga:                              And then you have to court them just like you would court anybody because nobody’s going to give you the time of day just because, right?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

fari nzinga:                              No free lunch in this capitalist society we live in, right? Rule number one, econ. Uh, but I do think that, for example, when I was doing the research for this paper, I interviewed Arnold Lehman at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

fari nzinga:                              And he said, “You know, we have been so tremendously successful because we took an activist stance. We said Brooklyn is a multi-dimensional, multi-faceted, multi-cultural, multi-lingual community and we’re going to make sure that in every facet of our operation in, in our institution we’re going to reflect that. And we’re not going to settle for, oh, well, this is just how the cards fell, right? We’re going to go out there and if people aren’t coming to us, then we’re going to go to them and we’re going to find out why they’re not coming to us and what can we do differently?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Right.

fari nzinga:                              “And we’re going to be aggressive about it and we’re going to pursue,” you know, be not perseverant, but, uh-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Determined and, yeah.

fari nzinga:                              Yeah, determined or even-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Dedicated, right, like … yeah.

fari nzinga:                              … a little bit pesky, you know what I’m saying?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Right, yeah.

fari nzinga:                              Like he … Persistent is the word-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (Laughs)

fari nzinga:                              … (Laughs) I was trying to say (laughs), yes, you know. Um, and so I think that libraries are kind of … They have an easier sell because there’s a ton of books there and there’s computers that people can use and there’s already stuff that people want. And in museums with collections, a lot of times that is the case, but a lot of times you have to tell people why they should want that stuff in the first place.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Right.

fari nzinga:                              And you really have to be active and you really have to be deliberate, um, and you, you can’t take anything personally and you can’t be willing to take no for an answer, you know?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    Fari, one of things that I think is really interesting coming out of this discussion is you’re sort of talking a lot about, um, neutrality and taking almost an activist stance. There was a 2013 study in the UK which was around public trust in museums and when the museum association in the UK wrote about it, they noted that it, it suggested that museums are highly admired because of their apolitical stance. And there was a strong sense and again, this was a few years ago and it was in the UK, but there was a strong sense that if museums started telling people what to think or became spaces for controversial debate, it might damage their integrity. In fact, the museums association in the UK went so far as to say, “Attempting to shape values even in a transparent way could be seen by the public as betraying a museum’s essential purpose of conveying factual information.”

But I think particularly because of the current political climate and even just in general, it really feels like there’s a lot of pressure from within our sector to be political and I think a lot of it actually comes from the people working within our sector see themselves, um, as seeking to make change. So I’m curious as to what you think about this tension and how we sort of resolve this idea, this gap, between almost a, a notion that public trust may relate to neutrality or, or does it? I mean, I’m really curious to unpack those ideas.

fari nzinga:                              Well, I guess what I would want to know more about were the kinds of methods behind the survey. Who was surveyed? Who were amongst the surveyors, you know? Uh, because one of the things I was put onto when I got MCN was the visitor of color project by Nikhil Tivedi and who is the other person that was with him on that?

Suse Anderson:                    Is, is it Porchia who does that? There’s Porchia [crosstalk 00:33:50].

Jeffrey Inscho:                      I believe it is Porchia, yeah.

fari nzinga:                              Yeah, Porchia[crosstalk 00:33:52]. Um, and I think it’s brilliant and fantastic and it is so needed and so necessary because until visitors of color tell museums look, we’re tired of the same hack-kneed narrative that you keep serving us.

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

fari nzinga:                              And we’re tired of your interpretation of our history and of our culture and of our contributions to science innovation or what have you, right? When will you … And this goes back to the question of excellence, right? So who gets to judge and who gets to interpret what from our rich history and artistic traditions is excellent and what is not excellent?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

fari nzinga:                              And why? And how … And what makes you the authority on that, right? And so, um, when I teach their, uh, entries in my class, a lot of times my students who also, you know, SUNO is as you said in the introduction, a historically black university. So my students are African-American for the most part, and when I, you know, expose them to this, they’re like, “Oh, yeah. I can relate to that. I can definitely relate to that. Let me tell you about the last time I went to such-and-such museum,” you know?

Suse Anderson:                    Mmm.

fari nzinga:                              And everyone had stories. Everyone has stories and some of them are recent, and some of them are like, “I don’t even go to museums because when I was in fourth grade this thing happened and it just turned me off completely.”

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

fari nzinga:                              You know? So I really do have to … I think that we all should question like you were saying, Jeffrey, this public, who is the public-

Suse Anderson:                    Mmm.

fari nzinga:                              … that gets to say, you know, this is what museums should do or should be?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Right, hmm.

fari nzinga:                              How, I mean, how can we say that attempting to shape values is at odds with, um, disseminating factual information? Are those two things not in alignment?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mmm.

fari nzinga:                              Are those two things automatically contrary to one another? I don’t think so.

Suse Anderson:                    Mmm.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Big stuff.

fari nzinga:                              Yeah.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Um, before we let you go, fari, I … There’s, uh, uh, I’m just, I’m personally curious. I notice that when you, you write your name you use lower case letters. Why is that?

fari nzinga:                              Um, it’s kind of an homage to Bell Hooks who is a feminist, theorist, and also a writer and, um, a social critic, cultural critic. And that’s not her given name, but she writes under the name Bell Hooks because she is herself paying homage to her grandmother.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (Laughs)

fari nzinga:                              And I love the way that she doesn’t capitalize it and I love the way that she takes her grandmother’s name because she is representing for everybody’s grandmother. She’s representing for all of those black women who, you know, had a contribution to this society that whose names we don’t remember and who we might not capitalize (laughs)-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Right.

fari nzinga:                              … because they aren’t seen as important.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Hmm.

fari nzinga:                              Um, in addition, she also doesn’t capitalize it because she’s like, “I want you to talk about my ideas, not my name.” And so I really, I really want people to engage with the scholarship. I want them to engage with the analysis. I want them to engage with the critique, with the level of imagination, you know? Um, and it’s not really supposed to be about a [inaudible 00:37:31] of personality.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Right.

fari nzinga:                              So that’s … Those are some of the things I’ve borrowed from, from her.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Very cool. So if listeners to the podcast, uh, want to stay in touch with your scholarship and with your ideas, um, where might they be able to do that?

fari nzinga:                              Um, actually, I’m on the editorial board of and so people can check out some of the work that I am helping to do research and writing on. Um, and until then I guess they’ll have to follow me on Twitter, @fari_nzinga.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Cool, and we’ll put links to all this stuff in, in the show notes so that listeners can, uh, can definitely stay in touch and, and stay up to date with, uh, the amazing thinking and, and work and, uh, scholarship that, that, that you’re doing. It’s, it’s, it’s fantastic stuff, so fari, thanks so much for, uh, being a part of, of Museopunks.

fari nzinga:                              Thank you so much for having me. It’s been an honor and really, really fun.


Suse Anderson:                    Adriel Luis is a self-taught musician, poet, curator, coder, and visual artist who believes that imagination is key to transforming cultural paradigms. As the curator of digital and emerging media at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, he’s focused on exploring intersectional identities in the US and contemporary Asian diasporic art. He’s also part of the illiteracy art collective and sometimes moonlights on design projects with various artists and non-profits. Adriel frequently travels to different parts of Asian with particular interest in how digital space shapes global communities and how varying levels of freedom of expression channel artistic political imagination. Adriel can be found across online platforms as at Drzzl, D-r-z-z-l. Adriel, welcome to the show.

Adriel Luis:                             Hello, hello.

Suse Anderson:                    It’s so wonderful to have you joining us here on our first season back of Museopunks.

Adriel Luis:                             Ah, so excited.

Suse Anderson:                    We have just given you a, a sort of grand introduction with your full bio and I really want to drill down a little bit into the Asian Pacific American Center and the work that you do there. Can you tell us a little bit more about it? I’m not sure everyone, of our listeners, would be familiar with what, uh, one of the centers is at the Smithsonian and a little bit more about your job?

Adriel Luis:                             Okay, cool, cool. So, um, the Smithsonian is the institution that essentially presents the, the national museums of the United States, uh, so we are a complex that includes a bunch of museums and research centers and a zoo and observatories. Um, we are part of a center that, uh, or we are the center that focuses on Asian Pacific American history and culture, but we’re not a traditional museum in that we don’t have a brick and mortar building. We don’t have, uh, traditional kind of collection. And a lot of the work that we’ve been doing because of those circumstances have been I think a lot more along the lines of, uh, tackling topics that we hear our communities, um, you know, uh, who, who are interested in talking about these things. And, and so because we don’t have a collection, we, we do have a community and, and that’s kind of the way that we look at it.

Um, we … Our flagship project recently has been, uh, what we, what we call culture labs which are basically museum happenings that like museums feature art and, um, and historic objects and, uh, you know, are places of learning and realization. But they’re developed from start to finish using community organizing practices as opposed to, as opposed to going straight to sort of the traditional museum handbooks for putting this together. Um, and so we really kind of see, for example, as opposed to lineups for group shows, we’re developing arts collectives, um, artist collectives out of the people who are, who are developing the work instead of the curators telling the answers, the curators are asking the questions. And, and we see the work that we, that we curate as prompts for, for things that, uh, that our visitors can come in and actually engage with directly and on site with both the artists and the curators.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Nice, so, uh, one of the recent, um, culture labs was, uh, was called CrossLines and, um, you know, it was kind of, uh, pitched or talked about as a culture lab on the intersectionality and it featured, you know, more than 40 artists and scholars, right? Can … How did this particular … Was this the first culture lab that you did?

Adriel Luis:                             Yeah, yeah, that was the first culture lab. Um, it took place at, uh, the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Cool.

Adriel Luis:                             … which used to be the US National Museum. So before any of the other Smithsonian museums opened, this was the kind of where we showed off our stuff-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Adriel Luis:                             … Um, back in the late 1800s.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Walk us through the process of how that, that particular culture lab took shape. I mean, how do you, um, how do you start talking with participants and, and, and that sort of thing?

Adriel Luis:                             Um, so I guess that all kind of starts with, like, when I, when I started at the Smithsonian, um, I had come fully from a background as a full-time artist, um, you know, who was also doing, you know, web and graphic design, um, on a freelance basis. And so going from that into becoming a federal employee of like the largest institution of the world was like yeah, definitely a big ice bucket of water.

Suse Anderson:                    (Laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (Laughs) Really?

Adriel Luis:                             Right (laughs). I was, like, why is it so hard to buy a pencil [crosstalk 00:43:37]?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (Laughs)

Suse Anderson:                    (Laughs)

Adriel Luis:                             But, um, you know, I think it also just gave me a lot of, um, of avenues to think about things in, in just, like, in a kind of a scale that, that I, I just really couldn’t imagine when I was just kind of working, working on, on, on my own thing.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Adriel Luis:                             Which I really appreciate and I think, um, you know, that, that’s where I kind of came to console myself whenever I was, like, going through crazy bureaucracy was, like, the fact that it’s, like, okay well, you know, at … what … at some points this was just an idea and, you know, there’s all these checks and balances now, but you know, like, you can actually be creative in the way that you navigate that stuff. Um, you know, that, that kind of goes into, um, you know, uh, when you’re reading my bio and I was talking about kind of different levels of freedom of expression, you know, like, we think about that in different societies, but in each setting you go into, you walk into a bar, you walk into a museum, you work in a museum, you’re constantly navigating what you can and can’t say and that’s kind of, like, you know, uh, a creative exercise in its own.

And so the culture lab was basically, uh, you know, what we came up with after, I think, several years of just learning the ropes of what it means to work in the Smithsonian, and, and how can we still have difficult conversations, um, but in ways that, that still, I think, are digestible to people who are, um, are used to kind of traditional exhibitions and stuff like that.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, fantastic. In terms of the subject matter, CrossLines was an exploration of intersectionality.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:                    We’re talking today a lot about trust and public trust. How important is intersectionality to this trust dynamic between museums and the public?

Adriel Luis:                             Sure, so intersectionality is a term that was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw,um, and it is essentially the understanding that, I think, past concepts of, like, diversity and things like that have still kind of segmented people into groups that are very, uh, one dimensional. And so diversity is often times, like, allocated to just race or to just gender and things like that. And intersectionality is, is really, um, recognizing that, that, uh, the ways that we as people, um, interact with each other and with the world is this really messy, complicated, um, smorgasbord of all the different things that, um, that, that encompass us. Um, you know, like the ways that, that my race and my sexuality and my gender collides is really how, uh, how my experience with the world is formed as opposed to, you know, like, me going through one situation and being, like, “This happened to me because of my Asian-ness.” You know, and so-

Suse Anderson:                    Right.

Adriel Luis:                             … Um, for, for me growing up in California in a very diverse neighborhood, um, and, and city and environment, intersectionality, you know, like, even though the word was relatively new to me, the, the concept was, um, you know, very organically understood. But, um-

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Adriel Luis:                             … When we started talking about at the Smithsonian, um, you know, some of the reactions that we got within the institution was that, oh, this term is very academic, um, you know, can you use a different word to promote this event because, um, the visitors might not understand it? And, you know, I saw that as actually an opportunity to do what the Smithsonian does best, which is take concepts that are foreign and abstract and make them, uh, accessible, family-friendly, even fun, you know, and it’s like-

Suse Anderson:                    Hmm.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Adriel Luis:                             … if you can, if you can, kind of, kind of what I say a lot is, you know, if the Air and Space Museum can explain rocket science, then surely we can explain how someone can be gay and a woman and black at the same time.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      So, uh, CrossLines and culture labs, they, um, you know, from the distance that I’m, I’m viewing them from, uh, seem to be really making some strides and achieving the goal of kind of growing trust between a, a museum and, and its, and its public. And in some ways, uh, and in interesting ways I think it, it kind of blurs the line between the two in, in fundamental ways. How has this idea, this progressive idea of cultural labs, how is it being received internally and particularly among your curatorial colleagues?

Adriel Luis:                             Mmm. Well, specifically within our center, we’re super-duper small, and so we’re, we operate like a grassroots organization on a day-to-day basis because we have, like, a staff of, like, seven or eight.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Okay.

Adriel Luis:                             And, uh, and, and so, you know, whether you’re a curator or an admin or education, um, when you have an idea it, it’s heard and it’s processed. And, um, you know, this whole idea of community organizing based museum practice isn’t just me. Um, most of the people on my staff come from sort of non-traditional backgrounds or backgrounds that are outside of museum scopes, and we all kind of bring that to the table. So, like, one of, uh, you know, one of my co-curators, um, [Kuluva Korea 00:49:02] is like based in the big island of Hawaii. He has done everything from, you know, like marine research to like farming his own land, and so he brings that to the table in ways that me, as digital and emerging media curator, you know, it’s very new to me, but I think that the, the idea of just kind of, like, trusting, trusting what’s around you and especially for museums. If, if you are to be a reflection of the society that you are contextualizing, then, then where can you loosen the grasp? Like, where can you kind of as a curator be the person or the group of people who are actually, uh, taking, taking down barriers, uh, as opposed to kind of putting up guidelines and, and, and, um, you know, rules and things like that.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, it sounds like there’s a, there’s a really strong element of cross-disciplinarity or transdisciplinarity there that, um, really helps to enable these type of things.

Adriel Luis:                             Yeah, and I think it’s, it’s kind of scary for, for people who are coming from more traditional museum backgrounds, um, and I get it because you’re operating from a status quo of, like, the … your average visitor is going to come into a space expecting answers because that’s what, that’s what they’ve been raised, right? They’ve been raised with this certain kind of didactic, um, you know, with a certain kind of pedagogy that, um, you know, could be its own lesson in itself, you know? But, but that’s kind of where we I draw from my experience as an artist because I started off as a spoken word artist and so your, you know, a lot of the job is going into a space and saying I’m going to do poetry and then, and then proceeding to dismantle what people think is poetry by presenting something different, right? And then so that’s kind of what we’re doing with these culture labs is, like, we’re a museum. We’re going to do this museum happening now in real time while we do this amazing show. Let us also, um, complicate the ways that you, um, are used to interacting with museums.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, I think that’s really interesting. In your curatorial practice you’ve champi-, championed this idea of sort of the democratic shine of information and how that gets unlocked by digital space. Can you talk to us a little bit more about how this concept comes together because it seems really, um, aligned with what you’re talking about and I’m, I’m curious how, how much of this has been formed by your world not just then in sort of, uh, spoken word spaces and artistic spaces, but also in digital spaces.

Adriel Luis:                             Mm-hmm (affirmative), um, yeah. You know, like, I, I didn’t think I was going to get the job when I applied for it-

Suse Anderson:                    (Laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (Laughs)

Adriel Luis:                             … and, you know, like, I didn’t know anybody at the Smithsonian. Someone forwarded me the job application and I just filled it out, like, like it was a, you know, like I was filling out an application for, like, Top Shop or something, I don’t know.

Suse Anderson:                    (Laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (Laughs)

Adriel Luis:                             Uh, and then and, and I didn’t really get, I didn’t really know what a curator was, um, and googling it didn’t help.

Suse Anderson:                    (Laughs)

Adriel Luis:                             Um, but what I do like to say is that I am one of the early results of the, the fact that to be a curator has become a more democratic concept. Um, you know, to the dismay of some curators who I think, you know, worked really hard and like to, to, to get that title. You know, by the same time it’s, again, it’s the same thing as like poets who, um, have their MFAs and are [inaudible 00:52:34] at like 13-year-olds who are, you know, like on, on the microphone and also calling themselves poets, right? Um, and, and that’s, that’s kind of tension I think is not necessarily to be resolved, but rather to be a case study for kind of how we as people just kind of, you know, decide how we’re going to move forward in, in the ways that we, that we communicate and share knowledge. Um, but, you know, a lot of how I’ve been able to excel has been specifically from people that I’ve encountered who’ve just trusted me.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Adriel Luis:                             You know, like, despite the fact that I don’t have a traditional museum background or despite the fact that I’m new, um, you know, and, and that value, the fact that my questioning and my, um, my wandering around, uh, had the potential to make something better, because you’re able to ask questions that you can’t if you’ve been in the museum world for, for however long, right? And so, you know, I’m, I’m approaching my fourth year, um, in the museum would and I’m feeling that kind of, uh, unfamiliarity fade.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

Adriel Luis:                             I’m starting to get used to things and starting to assume stuff and, and you know it when you start referring to people or artists by just the last name and like just mo-, continuing forward without explaining things and, you know, using acronyms and stuff like that and, and living in DC, working at the Smithsonian, like, I am oh so susceptible to that, right?

Suse Anderson:                    (Laughs)

Adriel Luis:                             And so, um, you know, like, when I started realizing that that was happening, um, you know, which was happening the more and more I was being invited to speak at, um, you know, on podcasts and events and things like that and started, started being looked at as, like, sort of an expert, um, you know, which, which was also just kind of weird just because I am still very new to the museum world. Um, I found that, like, a solution is to hand off certain responsibilities to people who do not have the kind of, I would say, overexposure of, of museum, uh, manner-, mannerisms, right? And then so, you know, it began with, like, first making sure that I was just hanging out with enough artists and, and, and activists and organizers and people who completely don’t know the museum world, because then when I refer to certain things they can be like, what, what, what the hell are you talking about, right?

But then uh, also seeing well how can I actually rope these people into the work that I do? You know, like, how do, how do we make sure that we’re not just working with artists who have been through the museum circuit before? How do we make sure that we’re constantly also including organizers and, and, um, you know, people from other fields who can ask the questions that, that, you know, might seem like no-brainers to, um, to those of us who have kind of, like, just, you know, dri-, driven, driven in, you know, driven around the block en-, enough times already.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, and, and, you know, thinking about this idea, um, of, uh, democratic sharing of information and, and doing research and … on, on this episode and, um, you know, kind of internet stalking you to learn about (laughs) your work-

Adriel Luis:                             (Laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      … Um, I kind of, uh, you know, I kind of realized that you could potentially be taking cues from like peer-to-peer software and, you know, and that got me thinking of, you know, what, what is your take on this idea of museum as a node, rather than museum as a gatekeeper, right? Is that kind of what we’re thinking about and what we’re talking about here?

Adriel Luis:                             Yeah, yeah. Like, I grew up, I grew up, you know, stealing so much music via the internet (laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, that [crosstalk 00:56:11].

Suse Anderson:                    (Laughs)

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Everybody did.

Adriel Luis:                             You know, um, and, um, you learn so much when you kind of stare at this progress bar on like [inaudible 00:56:19] or like BitTorrent, right? And, you know, peer-to-peer is a great example, right? The more, the more seeds, the more peers, the faster the download, right?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Right.

Adriel Luis:                             You want, uh, you know, and, and you’re literally, you know, trying to access a story. Let’s say you’re downloading a movie. You want to access a story. You’re, you’re going to choose, you’re going to choose the link that has the most peers because you know that you’re, you’re pulling information from a bunch of different sources as opposed to one person. Um, and if you have … If you’re trying to download a movie and you have one, and you have one seed, if that person decides that they just want to log off or kick you off, then you’re done, right? But if you have, like, you know, 300 seeds, then it doesn’t matter, you know, like who logs off, there, there’s always going to be someone else to kind of, like, pick up, pick it up, right?

And I think that that’s kind of, you know, where, uh, as a, as a, as a curator of digital, that’s, that’s where I, I’m really interested in stuff, um, because that can manifest in, in person-to-person situations that have nothing to do with pixels or, or touchscreens or, you know, like, uh, all those things that look really nice on like digital, digital program brochures at museums, but-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Right.

Suse Anderson:                    (Laughs)

Adriel Luis:                             … But, um, you know, like-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah.

Adriel Luis:                             … don’t really speak to kind of the potential of, of digital culture.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      For sure.

Adriel Luis:                             You know, I think we set, we set the bar so low when we think digital and it’s just like, you know, when people ask, like, but what’s, what’s the digital component of this project? It kind of irks me because it’s, like, you just really want to see a picture of seven-year-old with their finger on a touchscreen, you know, I can give that to you if that’s what you want, you know?

Suse Anderson:                    (Laughs)

Adriel Luis:                             But there’s so much more, there’s so much more, and so yeah. Democratic understandings of, of information is exactly why now people on Pinterest and Tumblr and, and Instagram and all that are calling themselves curators, and that’s empowerment, and, and I think that, um, you know, the more people who feel like they can be curators, like, the better because that’s just more seeds for these stories.

Suse Anderson:                    So, Adriel, one thing that I’ve been really thinking about and I can’t figure it out. So this is something that I’ve been stuck on for a little while. Lately there have been a lot of studies coming out showing that the public’s trust in the institutions, and that means government and financial institutions like banks, is dropping.

Adriel Luis:                             Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:                    But even institutions like science, the, the public’s trust is eroding and, in fact, it’s dropping to pretty unprecedented levels. And one of the things I’ve been trying to make sense of work out is whether there’s a relationship between this rise of the kind of peer-to-peer citizen curation where we trust, uh, we trust the person who happens to have the file we’re after.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse Anderson:                    But we don’t necessarily trust the institution because that nature of authority is shifting. And I’m wondering if you think there is that relationship whereby we’re much more likely to trust someone we can connect to directly rather than someone through an institution? And if so, how that starts to have an impact for museums?

Adriel Luis:                             Yeah. Um, I think that, uh, you know, like sometimes I feel like museums, often I feel like museums are asking the wrong question, right? So-

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Adriel Luis:                             … Um, you know, people are, are trusting institutions less and less and so the institutions then ask well, how do we get people to trust us again, right? And, and I think that that’s, that’s not necessarily the best way to, to tackle that issue, um, because I don’t think it’s about getting people to trust you again like the way that they did in the ’70s or whatever. Um, it’s about how do we understand the shifting nature of what trust means, right? And, um, you know, again using, like, uh, you know, an analogy of like social media, like, part of what makes social media social media is, you know, at least among, among individuals, it’s like on Instagram, I’ll like your post more if I see that you’re liking my posts more, right? Like, that’s kind of how it works, um, because there’s, there’s a presence and a conversation, right? It’s like, oh, this person is interested in what, in, in what I’m saying. Um, if this person’s interested in what I’m saying, I’m going to be interested in why they’re interested in what I’m saying and so, therefore, I’m interested in what they’re saying, right? Um, and, and, and that’s different than just kind of, you know, going to a well of information and just drawing from it, you know-

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Adriel Luis:                             … and, uh, and, and then, and then having to, like, then evaluate without conversing with that source, um, you know, what it is that I can trust and what it is that I, that I, that I can’t, right? If I question something, um, there, like, where, where’s the room for me to process that, you know, like, uh, in the museum space? And I think that that’s, that’s hard to find, and then so people, you know, even if they’re getting their information from institutions, they’re processing it with their, with their friends and eventually, they’re just kind of, like, oh, well, I can just ask my friends in the first place because they’ll, they’ll talk back.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, so Adriel, I mean do you ever think about or envision what it would like to the sector if museums put complete trust into their publics, and, and, and never think about, like, how the museum practice would change if that were the case?

Adriel Luis:                             Um, yeah, they’re like culture labs.

Suse Anderson:                    (Laughs)

Adriel Luis:                             I mean, but, but here’s the thing, though. I don’t, I don’t … I’m not trying to replace anything. I think that that like people generally, you know, that’s the fear with digital, you know, like, people are worried that, like, well if, if you do a digital exhibition then, you know, no one’s ever going to look at a thing again. And it’s, like, no, we’re just looking at more options, right? And so right now, um, exhibitions have the monopoly on how people experience objects and art, um, and so we’re just kind of thinking, you know, and I think that there’s def-, you know, it’s not like I go into museums and every exhibition I go to I’m, like, this would have been better if it was a culture lab. I wish I could draw on this right now, you know? It’s, like, it’s not necessarily like that. You know, like I think there’s-

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Adriel Luis:                             … There’s definitely a lot to be said about exhibitions. They are important, important formats that I think, um, you know, it is good in many circumstances to have someone who has thoroughly researched something and is providing, um, you know, their opinion even if framed as fact. Like, I, I see the value in it. I’m not trying to kill that, so I just want to make that clear, but um, I, I, I do think that there is something to be said about offering another way, you know, and, and when I was in Hong Kong, uh, in 2014 for the, uh, for the uprising, um, that was one of the, the first situations that I encountered where I was, like, wow, this is really … What organic, you know, curating with trust is. Because there was no chief curator of this occupation, but there were installations everywhere. There were sculptures, there were, um, posters, um, you know, people were making art live. There, there was, you know, there were workshops happening and all of it was, um, telling a story in a very concise and tight way, right?

And, um, and, and because nobody was trying to say that this was a great exhibition or that this is something that, you know, like museums should do, like that, just that, that, the, the limitations that you get once you bring that into the, into the, um, mind space just wasn’t there. But I got everything that I w-, all I ever wanted to get from all the other past times I had gone to Hong Kong and and left museums unsatisfied, I found there was local art. I had a sense of, like, what society there wanted to be. I had a sense of what society had been and, and is. You know, I was, I was entertained. I was, you know, there, there were certain things amazed me. I had moments where I was, like, how did they do that? You know, like all that stuff. And, and, and, and I also got a very accurate understanding of at least how society sees itself, you know, which is very different from-

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Adriel Luis:                             … you know, and I, I would argue is no less accurate than how the state or, or whatever, whatever kind of institution sees, um, you know, the, the subject matter as.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, just, I’m just curious. How, how do you refer to the non-APA entities that are involved with culture lab? Is it public? Is it audience? Is it community? Is it … Do you, do you, do you have some type of ethos when, when dealing with, non, uh, museum or center, um, participants?

Adriel Luis:                             Um, not really.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Okay.

Adriel Luis:                             Um, I mean, I think that’s actually been something that I been kind of wrestling with.

Suse Anderson:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Adriel Luis:                             Like right now we’re writing our manifesto for the culture labs because eventually we’re going to, uh, we, we want this to be a model that, that other museums and organizations feel empowered to adopt-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Adriel Luis:                             … um, at any scale. Like, we work with over 40-50 artists, but you could do a culture lab with three artists as long as you pay them and there’s local representation and you’re thinking intersectionally, you know, and so.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Right.

Adriel Luis:                             It’s like, um, you know, I’m … But we’re writing this manifesto and, and there’s certain segments where we’re thinking about, like, the institution, um, the artists, the art-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Adriel Luis:                             … um, you know, the other kinds of participants that are, like, curated. But then when it comes to, like, the people who come into the space and engage with the stuff, like, sometimes I’ll call them users. Sometimes I’ll call them visitors. Sometimes I’ll call them the public. Um, I’m not really happy with any of those terms quite yet. Um, and so that’s something that I’m still kind of figuring out.

Suse Anderson:                    Well, I mean, in some ways you always made a term that crosses the intersectionality of their roles as well. You know, I mean, this is that people aren’t just one role even when they come into the museum, not just at a personal level, but even, you know, if we’re talking about someone who comes as a visitor but then becomes a participant, you know, throughout, there is also, I, I think that’s one of the things that we do in museums is we often have ways of thinking about our audiences or publics or visitors and even that do not themselves … They relegate them to one role whereas they’re not actually one thing even within one visit, and even at the same time within that visit. So even sort of the way the museum thinks about who its publics or participants are, there’s a, there’s a narrowing or a blanking of how we think, like, we think that down as opposed to broadening that out.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    Adriel, this has been fantastic. Thank you so much for coming onto Museopunks and sharing with us the work that you do.

Adriel Luis:                             Yeah, this was super fun to talk about, and I know we’re just scratching the surface, and so I’m so excited just to hear who else you have on this series. Um, I’ll definitely be, be tuning in.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Awesome, and so, Adriel, if, um, if the listeners want to stay in touch, um, uh, follow your work with culture labs, um, where can they do that on the internet?

Adriel Luis:                             Um, so, um, I would say that the dashboard would be Um, and that’s also Smithsonian APA is also our, our user name on, um, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. Um, and then for myself personally, it’s Drzzl with no vowels, so D-r-z-z-l. Um, it’s for the website, and then I’m on, um, I’m, I’m on Twitter and Instagram kind of, um, I’ve been, I’ve been getting, like, worse at social, but, you know, I’m, I’m still around, um-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      (Laughs) It’s all good. It’s all good. Uh, thanks so much, Adriel, uh, for, for, uh, speaking with us today. It was, it was awesome.

Adriel Luis:                             Great, thank you. Thank you so much.


Jeffrey Inscho:                      Okay, Suse, uh, a lot to digest there in, uh, from those guests.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, a huge amount to digest. It feels so nice to be doing this show again and I have just remembered how stimulating these conversations are. Uh, you sort of forget, I think, uh, when you’ve had some time away from it just how interesting and how meaty these subjects are and how great it is to talk with really thoughtful people-

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah.

Suse Anderson:                    … about them.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Uh, you know, I really feel like Fari and Adriel kind of hit all, all sides of this issue, um, kind of balanced sides really, um, kind of strong inquiry into, into this concept of trust and how museums can, um, can start to operate in, in, in this, in this space. So, um, yeah, and I’m going to be, like you, I’m going to be thinking about this quite a bit over the next couple weeks.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, I’d also really love to keep talking to people about it. I know that I will be reaching our to Adriel and to Fari online. They’ve both given their Twitter handles and will obviously drop those into the show notes as well. But if people want to find us on the internet so that they can continue talking to us about this issue, where can they do it?

Jeffrey Inscho:                      All the show notes for this episode can be found at and you can tweet at us at Museopunks. Um, I think we both want to also send out a really big thank you to the American Alliance of Museums for, um, lighting the fire again.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, absolutely. We are now officially presented by the American Alliance of Museums and it is such a great pleasure to be back on the, uh, digital airways so to speak. But I think also within that, we should give a special thanks to Liz Neely and Rob Stein for helping make this new season of Museopunks happen.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, definitely, and with a new season comes a new graphic design for, uh, for, for Twitter and the website and, um, really just another shout-out to, um, Selena Robleto for, uh, the, the amazing graphic work she did for, for the, uh, reboot of Season Two. Uh, so definitely thank you.

Suse Anderson:                    Absolutely. I’m really excited. I’m hoping we can get T-shirts or something so that I can be wearing this logo everywhere.

Jeffrey Inscho:                      Yeah, sounds good. Well, Suse, this is the first episode of Season Two in the can and I, uh, I really look forward to, to, to next, uh, next episode.

Suse Anderson:                    Yeah, me too, Jeffrey. It has been so much fun and I can’t wait to speak to you for the next episode of Museopunks.


Dr. fari nzinga
fari nzinga was born and raised in Boston, MA and graduated with a B.A. from Oberlin College in 2005. Fari earned both her M.A. and Ph.D in Cultural Anthropology from Duke University. Having lived in New Orleans since 2009, her dissertation explored Black-led, community-based institutions using art and culture to help achieve their social justice missions, as well as the political-economic landscape in which they operate. For two years she worked as the Public Policy Officer at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA), where she attempted to facilitate institutional transformation around issues of transparency, access, inclusion and equity. Currently, fari is an Adjunct Professor of Museum Studies at Southern University at New Orleans (SUNO) — one of only 2 Historically Black Colleges and Universities to house a masters-level Museum Studies program in the U.S. fari tweets @fari_nzinga.
Read fari’s thoughts on public trust and art museums

Adriel Luis
Adriel Luis is a self-taught musician, poet, curator, coder, and visual artist who believes imagination is key to transforming cultural paradigms. As the Curator of Digital and Emerging Media at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, he is focused on exploring intersectional identities in the U.S. and contemporary Asian diasporic art. He is also a part of the iLL-Literacy arts collective, and sometimes moonlights on design projects with various artists and non-profits. Adriel frequently travels to different parts of Asia with particular interest in how digital space shapes global communities, and how varying levels of freedom of expression.

Show Notes

Public Trust and Art Museums | The Incluseum

Anna Julia Cooper | Wikipedia

Visitors of Color

bell hooks | Wikipedia


Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center

Crosslines: A Culture Lab on Intersectionality

The public puts great trust in museums, and now it’s time museums trust the public |

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Museopunks is a podcast for the progressive museum. Every month, Suse Anderson investigates the fascinating work and personalities in and around the museum sector. The Punks explore some of the sector’s most stimulating questions, institutions, and practices, with a focus on emergent, boundary-pushing work and ideas.


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Museopunks is presented by the American Alliance of Museums.

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Suse Cairns Anderson HeadshotSuse Anderson
For close to a decade, Suse has explored the intersection of technology and culture, with a focus on the impact of digital technologies on the museum. She is currently Assistant Professor, Museum Studies at The George Washington University, where she teaches courses on museums and digital technology, social media, and visitor experience. She holds a PhD (Creative Arts) and a BFA (Hons – 1st class, Faculty Medal), both from The University of Newcastle, Australia, and a BArts (Comms – Journalism) from Charles Sturt University.

Since moving from Australia to Baltimore in 2014, Suse has fallen in love with the city she now calls home. You should visit her there one day, or connect with her on Twitter.