My favorite take-away from ‘Ted Lasso’ for creative people

I’m a big fan of the show Ted Lasso. And though the series ended a while ago now, it’s been on my mind a lot lately while I’ve been mourning the passing of an inspiring and beloved manager (much like Ted) who had hosted team building events for us to watch together.

The show has wise messages for people in any career, but one of my favorites for culture workers and creatives specifically is: be curious, not judgmental.

Museum people are the most curious people I know. For many of us, curiosity is what drives our lifelong love of learning, our sense of wonder and craving for experiences that transport us emotionally, our desire to understand every rhyme and reason of visitors’ behaviors, and our creativity itself. You needn’t tell us to ‘stay curious.’

Yet we can probably all recount moments at work when we found ourselves on the judgmental side of the spectrum.

Consider a time when a colleague handled a problem in a jarringly different way than you would. In this situation, did you find yourself using a judgmental mindset or a curious one?

Judgmental MindsetCurious Mindset
“They probably just don’t have the experience yet to know better.”“What might be their reasons for doing it that way?”
“They’re not understanding the problem.”“Are they seeing other problems than the one I’m focused on?”
“That’s so like them to be
[insert personality trait].”
“How do the differences in our personalities make us capable of results I couldn’t get alone?”

Here are what I see as the most common causes lurking behind our judgments:

  • Ego – this is the voice that says, “My conviction in my beliefs or approach means that other takes must be inferior.” 
  • Unconscious bias – this is the voice that says, “Some people need to earn my trust more than others.”
  • Fatigue – this is the one culture workers experience most disproportionately to people in other industries. It says, “With everything I have to get done, my internal productivity machine can’t afford the monkey wrench of an unexpected change.”

Do you agree? What else would you add to this list?

I know you meant well. It’s time to stop managing unpaid interns.

Unpaid internships often get talked about at the high level – what museums and boards and grant awarders and accreditation orgs and graduate programs and so on should do to put an end to them.

Of course I agree with these sentiments, but this time I want to call upon a different, equally powerful audience to act. If you’re an entry-to-mid level museum worker who trains or manages interns as part of your day-to-day work, this one’s for you.

Here’s what I ask of you:

By this Labor Day, tell your boss that you’re no longer OK with managing unpaid interns.

The time, energy, and resources you have put into developing your interns are real and probably have had real impact. With exposure to your training and network, your interns have honed their talents and perhaps even gone on to get great jobs.

But these individual successes come at indefensible cost to the museum field and every worker in it, including your interns and yourself. This cost can be summed up in two points:

  1. While aspiring workers who can afford to forgo paid jobs for months at a time get ahead in their careers, others–disproportionately people of color–get shut out.
  2. Interns bring knowledge and skills to your museum from their education and prior work experiences. Valuing their abilities at zero lowers the bar for salaries for all your museum’s staff.

Here are some better ways you can help aspiring museum workers start their careers:

  • Help them research paid positions where they can gain transferable skills for museum work, even if outside of museums.
  • When hiring for paid positions, evaluate applicants’ abilities based on transferable skills, even if gained outside of museums.
  • Coach them on improving cover letters, resumes, interviews, and salary negotiations.
  • Connect them to your professional network through email introductions, social media, and low cost community events such as happy hours.
  • Create volunteering opportunities at your museum that people can sustain alongside full time employment at other organizations–max 5 hours per week, flexible schedules.

Have courage and raise this conversation with your boss this summer.

Let me know how it goes.

Sites of slavery shouldn’t be called “historic homes.”

Before white supremacists converged on Thomas Jefferson’s hometown earlier this month, Jefferson was already enmeshed in a controversy about the news that Monticello is restoring a room to include more of Sally Hemings’ story. Widely circulated pieces by journalists like Britni Danielle and Shaun King have since responded to the rhetoric of calling Hemings Jefferson’s “mistress” and American society’s clemency for Jefferson.

While focused on Monticello, these critiques broach an issue at greater scale throughout the United States. We should be talking more about the problem that nearly all historic sites that once had slavery were preserved not because they were sites of slavery, but because they were impressive homes of white slaveowners.1

Many historic sites have begun teaching about enslaved peoples through tours, special programs, and signage—but these efforts remain auxiliary to the core mission of educating about the historic home and homeowners. Monticello doesn’t even mention slavery in its mission statement. In case you’re wondering, Mount Vernon doesn’t either.

Briefly set aside any familiarity you have with historic homes and take a few moments to consider how absurd this convention really is. Here’s an exercise you might do:

// Think of a site of crimes against humanity outside the United States that you can visit as a tourist today. Could you imagine this place:

  • Having been saved as a historic site for a reason besides remembering the crimes against humanity and people harmed there?
  • Being marketed and most commonly known as the home or workplace of [name of oppressor]?
  • Telling visitors that [name of oppressor] had a complicated relationship with the people they harmed, and visitors can opt to take a separate tour about those people while they’re there?
  • Selling postcards and other souvenirs showcasing the beauty of their architecture or landscaping?
  • Hosting weddings, anniversaries, baby showers, and other joyful events?
  • Being mirrored by sites matching these criteria throughout its nation or region with a frequency and ubiquity comparable to historic sites in the United States that once held enslaved people?

If you’ve answered “yes” to all of these, I’d be grateful if you would comment. As it stands, I’m unaware of a phenomenon quite like this existing anyplace else. //

Being a white person, I can’t understand or speak for the stories of enslaved people. Yet, being a Jewish person, some part of the mistreatment of these sites feels personal. A Holocaust museum is meaningless if the nation it’s in denies reverence to its own sites of oppression. If all oppression is interconnected, then disrespect for one site of crimes against humanity must put the authority of all of them at stake.

Influenced by scholarship and movements led by museum workers of color, many historic homes (Monticello included) have set aims to tell their sites’ “complete” stories by integrating more information about enslaved people into their interpretations.2 These efforts are often called steps in the right direction, but I’m concerned they may be off-target in addressing the problem. The issue isn’t that these sites are failing to tell the whole story. It’s that they’re still telling the wrong story.

Maris Jones once wrote, “Our trauma is not an accessory.” Her sentiment, while expressed in a different context, makes plain why inserting stories of slavery into the existing narrative is insufficient. If Black stories can “complete” a site telling white stories, but not the other way around, then the Black stories are being used to accessorize the white stories at their own expense. Treating Black people as supporting characters for white people is counterproductive to teaching about slavery. Similarly, trauma isn’t a puzzle piece that completes the oppressor’s story. It doesn’t exist to complicate visitors’ understanding of the esteemed slave owner. Museums and historic homes shouldn’t be talking about the slave owners in the first place.

Aside from the moral question of whether these people deserve to be remembered, there’s a tactical question of whether interpreting them through their property is even a tenable mission for historic homes. It’s not always obvious to me how seeing a famous figure’s house and personal effects helps visitors understand the significance of their work and contributions to society. By comparison, interpreting the evidence the house bears to crimes against humanity and the lives of people who were enslaved there is unquestionably relevant to the place being preserved.

My most recent experience touring one of these houses happened about a year ago. The docent began with a biography of the (white) homeowner, gave a who’s-who of consecutive (white) tenants, and concluded with a tour of the house’s slave quarters. It took me some time to process how readily it was taken for granted that white people belonged in the story. If the homeowner is so unknown that a docent has to tell visitors who they were, there’s a good chance they don’t need to be mentioned at all.

Some would probably argue that visitor expectations make omitting narratives about slave owners impossible—anyone touring a house would want to know who owned it. But visitor expectations of hearing this trivia more often indicate when sites are failing to define or communicate their real significance. Many docents at natural history and art museums, for instance, don’t include details like who built the museum and what year it was built in their tour scripts. When the mission to teach about art or natural history is clear to visitors, they are more prepared to expect that a tour will focus on these subjects.

To clarify their purpose for visitors (and staff), historic homes might reexamine what 1-2 aspects of their site most make it worth saving. In doing so, I think many would find a gross discrepancy between the people they’ve been featuring and those who matter.

So what does Monticello’s mission tell us about how the site perceives its value? It’s unlikely that seeing Thomas Jefferson’s bed and tea cups teaches visitors much about the Declaration of Independence or his Presidency. This suggests the site is still telling his story out of belief that it’s important for people to know who he was as a person and, by extension, what kind of person founded America.

Herein lies the problem: there are hundreds of historic homes all exhibiting the wealth and power of the same kind of person across the country. Even if all of these sites individually have good intent, collectively they convey that only this kind of person could have had the means to make an impact worthy of national memory.

We can remember this when we ask why white visitors are drawn to seeing the wealth of these sites even when artifacts of that wealth don’t serve the educational mission the site claims. We can remember it when we ask why knowing what kinds of linens Jefferson owned is considered valuable information in the course of American history. And we can remember it when we ask why white supremacists found symbolic value in meeting at Jefferson’s hometown.

Peggy McIntosh once described an example of white privilege: “When I am told about our national heritage or about ‘civilization,’ I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.” If being told that people of your color built your nation is an indicator of privilege, then sites like Monticello must ask what it means to be the ones doing the telling.

1. Nearly, not all. There are some notable exceptions, such as the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana.
2. It would be impossible to cite all influential scholarship and movements here, but a few examples include Black Lives Matter, #MuseumsRespondToFerguson, #BlkTwitterstorians, Visitors of Color, The Incluseum, Museum Hue, and the Brown Girls Museum Blog. For more examples, see this list of publications compiled by La Tanya S. Autry.

Special thanks to Camille Bethune Brown, nikhil trivedi, and Jordan Thibodeau for their helpful input for writing this post.

When Free Admission Fails: Try “Social” Entry Fees?

A Brown Girls Museum Blog post by Amanda Figueroa recently inspired me. In it, Figueroa questions why she gets free museum access with her Harvard student ID. Admission costs are often the nth paper cut for people of color. Privileging visitors who have higher education and elite affiliations, Figueroa observes, raises additional barriers.

Data from museums that have waived their admission fees reveal even more complications. Opposite from their usual intention, free-admission days have been found to attract routine museum audiences instead of underserved ones.

It’s no surprise that eliminating entry fees failed to dismantle other barriers preventing inclusion. Yet I am curious about whether pricing models can be reimagined to engage target audiences better than free days.

Common pricing models promote attendance by favoring social relationships. Children get discounts so that families can afford to visit together. Many museums hope that students receiving discounts will generate buzz and bring their friends. The Art Institute of Chicago’s student membership, for example, includes admission for a guest.

This raises a few questions:

  1. Can cultural organizations make paying, or not paying, for admission a rewarding, social experience?
  2. Can organizations create groupings that target their audiences better than conventional groups (like students)?
  3. Can museums use discounts in a way that entertains individuals, gives them confidence that they and their social groups are wanted, and excites them to involve their groups?

Here are some ideas of what this could look like:

  • “Neighborhood days” with free/discounted admission for residents of certain areas.
  • Free/discounted admission for people with certain traits or stuff (e.g. anyone named “Michael,” anyone who shows a copy of an old family recipe, etc.) and their guests. The Charles M. Schulz Museum, for instance, offers free admission to redheads on Valentine’s Day.
  • Free admission for a raffle winner and half-price admission for up to five guests.
  • Tickets that teachers can award students, and a reward (such as a private tour) for the student’s family when they visit.

As the data about free admission days suggests, revising admission prices will have small, if any, impacts on inclusion. Adjusting such a specific area of institutional practice will not produce organization-wide changes. Where experiential entry fees may help, however, is in shifting mindsets around whom museums involve and how. Cultural organizations now know that extending a free invitation for whomever accepts doesn’t work. Maybe refocusing attention on the relationships underserved patrons have with each other can be a step toward shaping spaces that they can enjoy together.

I want to hear what you think. What do you see as limitations of rethinking admission prices? What can cultural organizations do to make the price of admission more equitable?