In 2019 I visited 27 museums. This is the first year I haven’t spent at least one day of my holiday break visiting a museum for as far back as I can remember. In 2020, I visited 4 museums, and Museum Drip was born in the vacuum. In the absence of critiquing label copy and hands-on family activities, I’ve spent most of the year reflecting on what could make museums better.
What Did We Learn?
- 2020 affirmed that people are tired of institutions refusing to embrace transparency and a diversity of voices
I’ve been excited to see other #museumnerds taking advantage of the user-generated platforms of podcasts and social media accounts to democratize the way we talk about art and museums and art history. Rather than younger people turning their backs on museums entirely, they (we? do I still count?) are turning to advocacy and education to make museums a more welcoming space for a diversity of audience. We’re thinking about racial diversity, of course, but also – where did everyone on staff go to college? What types of jobs did they have before working in the museum field? Are we making space for voices of people who are disabled? Are we truly welcoming of children and families, rather than shoving them into a windowless basement classroom for the entirety of their museum visit? I’m appreciative of podcasts, social media accounts and other blogs for providing access points that are more attainable than expensive professional networking opportunities. While we are still fighting for more inclusion at decision-making levels, it’s much more accepted to listen to your interns and other folks with less seniority.
We should be wary of relying on a structure in which the lowest-paid members of staff are the only ones bringing a fresh perspective to museum operations. Many among us can point to an instance in which our expertise or unique life experiences were taken advantage of by a superior – or even more commonly, how we put in work that was never recognized and certainly never compensated. With momentum to organize and unionize, many up-and-coming museum professionals are refusing to fall into that trap and pushing for a more equitable future for their careers.
2. Speaking of unions…2020 taught us that we must take better care of essential workers
Along with the budding museum professionals bringing new perspectives to operations, we need to protect the front line staff who make museums function. We would fail to function without custodial staff, security, part-time teaching staff and guest service associates. In the early days of the pandemic, a psychological shift shed led on workers that we’re often able to overlook. Our eyes were opened to the violence done to supply chain workers that don’t have the luxury of working from home. Adequate pay and benefits are way overdue for low-wage workers such as cashiers, delivery drivers, truckers and food service employees. Museums should take notes and stress that taking care of the employees at the bottom of the institutional hierarchy is equally important to the opulence on display for the most wealthy participants.
3. 2020 drilled down that to be a good ally, you have to do it when no one is looking.
If I had to pick a single sentence that I never in a million years could have predicted hearing on the reg before living through the year 2020, it wouldn’t be “I think you’re muted,” or “I’m going to share my screen.” It would be: “Museums want to acquire artwork by more African-American artists, but we can’t afford it! Black artists’ prices are through the roof!” American art museums somehow didn’t have enough work by Black artists to cobble together a single in-house exhibition, and yet suddenly the value was pricing museums out of diversifying their collections? Never has it ever been so obvious that the art market has evolved into an investment playground over a means of putting artwork into the world to be appreciated and enjoyed for its cultural value and aesthetic merits. Collectors will “flip” artworks just as one might “flip” a house. They’ll buy Black art low and sell it high, and over the summer when the protests were at their height, it was obvious that it would be in high demand. Most of the time, artists don’t see a penny from these sales. Auction houses are now experimenting with ways to make sales more lucrative for the artists and contracts that will discourage flipping.
Part of the reason for the scramble, and, as a result, lack of inventory to acquire work by Black artists is because institutions feel the pressure to keep up with the social norms. In 2020, when museums were pressured to put out Black Lives Matter statements, they also felt the pressure to display work by Black artists. Unfortunately, many museums had not prioritized acquiring work by Black or BIPOC artists in the years leading up to 2020 – and there’s no quick fix to diversifying your collection.
There are a million little things that your museum should be doing beyond the big-ticket items of collection-building and exhibition calendar-planning, if you want your museum to be a non-neutral place. In fact, I already wrote a list of some of them. Maybe remember to be mindful of choosing diverse artists in your lesson plans. Maybe mandate the inclusion of women and BIPOC artists even when you think no one will notice, like in a simple gallery game. Maybe 2020 shouldn’t have been the very first time you considered anti-racist training for the staff, or anti-racist pedagogy training for your volunteers and docents. Maybe you should have nipped your docents saying “this could be the ONLY time they ever visit a museum!” in the bud a long time ago.
4. 2020 showed us the accessibility we could gain from digital programming.
One of the biggest challenges art museums faced this year is the loss of gains in hands-on learning in the galleries. Because of the aesthetic integrity curators fight to maintain, it’s been a struggle to incorporate hands-on engagement opportunities side by side with artworks. As such, taking down touch objects from galleries felt like a major loss in 2020 when museums re-opened. It isn’t just a petty dispute between different sects of museum professionals; hands-on engagement facilitates learning by making meaningful connections. Choice-based learning, such as including both a wall label and a hands-on interactive, is proven to be more meaningful. Museums are designed to invite rather than require learning.
While we grapple with the loss of hands-on learning and try to figure out how to safely implement choice-based learning, we realized there is a lot to gain through the accessibility of digital programming! Families & individuals who have barriers to entry for art museums for any and all reasons including admission price, transportation, operating hours or a stigma/apprehension about visiting are able to access digital content that brings the museum into the comfort and safety of their home. We are now having conversations about how to retain access to information for people who can’t attend in person long after our pandemic restrictions lift. For a field that has long struggled with seeming overly exclusionary, it really is distressing that it took a global pandemic to realize that maybe if we didn’t make everything “exclusive” we wouldn’t seem so exclusionary. Weird. Working digitally/remotely can also open up the possibilities of partnership and allow for connections that might be difficult to make in person.
Will these lessons carry over into the 2020’s? They will if we continue to pressure institutions into adapting with our shifting priorities. Let’s make this a teachable 2020 because if all these lessons turn out to be for nothing – we should give it! Throw in the towel! Set sail for the Bermuda triangle! Those things might sound good to us all right now but they AREN’T!