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Museums and Social Justice: Supporting Self-Assessment

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

In a guest post here on the blog earlier this week, Nina Pelaez and Alyssa Greenberg reported on the self-organized convening of Museum Workers Speak at the AAM annual meeting in Atlanta a few weeks ago, where attendees addressed issues of equity, diversity, and labor practices within museums. As we seem to have a theme going (Monday’s post looked at factors that suppress or encourage diversity in hiring), I thought I’d share a related work-in-progress–an outline for a “social justice audit” of museum practices–and solicit your input.

I suggested in TrendsWatch2015 that museums may want to review their own policies and practices in light of the rising scrutiny society being brought to bear on the ethical dimension of nonprofit or for-profit operations. Internships, labor practices related to global building projects, pay equity, and paying a living wage have all been prominently examined in the press over the last year. Also on the horizon, if standards being applied to forprofit companies continue to migrate to the nonprofit realm: concerns about ethical sourcing of store inventory (including the labor conditions and pay of the people producing the merchandise).

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A self-assessment tool for internal practices related to social justice could facilitate conversations in museums about how their policies and practices reflect their social values. Refined with sufficient input and testing, it could provide a framework for the field to agree on benchmarks and promote data sharing. And in the process of discussing the framework, we can seek consensus about what values museums share, as a field.

I’ve talked to various folks about whether and how this outline could be turned into a survey, but I’m stymied when it comes to designing a workable methodology if the goal is a representative survey of the field. I suspect the museums motivated to answer such a survey would be the ones that have already embraced the values that underlie the questions, and on these measures, they are probably outperforming their peers.

But, one step at a time, and drafting an appropriate assessment tool is a good place to start. Here’s my outline so far. Please help me refine this working document, sharing your thoughts via the comments section below.

Outline for an Assessment Tool of Social Justice Practices (Draft)

  • The ratio between highest and lowest salaries in the museum
  • Ration of average compensation of women versus men in managerial and non-managerial positions.
  • Comparison of the lowest salary paid to a “living wage” (given the cost of living in the museum’s local economy)
  • Comparison of the museum’s compensation structure to peer institutions (above, below or at peer median).
  • The quality of insurance coverage, include size of copay and deductibles, and how many hours an employee has to work to qualify for health care coverage.
  • Quality and availability of a retirement plan
  • Presence of unpaid internships, and if unpaid internships are offered and, if they are, whether they structured to comply with Dept. of Labor regulations for such internships at for-profit companies.
  • Policies supportive of gender and socio-economic diversity
  • Policies regarding paid maternity/paternity leave <
  • Number of paid days off for salaried, hourly, full and part time employees
  • Job flexibility, including flex time, telecommuting and job sharing options
  • Survey of supplementary benefits such as: support of professional education; subsidized childcare; health and wellness programs; other
  • Diversity outcomes
  • Comparison of demographic composition of the board, leadership and staff to that of the surrounding community.
  • Presence of community advisory groups; measures of the actual influence wielded by these groups.

As you can see, I’ve been focusing on labor practices (recruitment, pay, benefits, etc.) but I realize that “social justice” can be much more broadly construed. For example, one could extend the measures outlined above to the companies with which the museum does business. Some organizations might choose to include operations unrelated to labor that have an impact on economic, social, and political equity, up to and including practices that affect environmental sustainability (which speaks to generational equity, and the world we leave to our descendants). One approach would be to divide the assessment tool into sections (Labor Practices; Community Relations; Sustainability) that a museum could choose from in creating an audit relevant to their own institution, mission, and resources.

  • Some resources I have found to be helpful:
  • The B Lab’s Quick Impact Assessment, designed to help B Corporations (companies legally constituted to provide a social good as well as financial returns) assess their companies against best practices on employees, community, and environmental impact.
  • The Nonprofit Quarterly, which regularly features thoughtful articles on pay equity and nonprofit labor practices (some of which I link to in my draft, above).

And related links (please add your favorite links in comments, as well):

  • The Incluseum, a project based in Seattle, Washington, devoted to promoting inclusion in museums. The organizers curate a blog and maintain a useful list of online resources.
  • #MuseumWorkersSpeak handout from their AAM 2015 annual meeting event with a list of resources, statistics, and questions.
  • Racial Equity Tools, a website designed to support individuals and groups working to achieve racial equity: includes tools, research, and tips on designing and implementing evaluation plans. (I was particularly pleased to find their list of research on implicit bias.)
  • The Social Justice Alliance of Museums, led by National Museums Liverpool, aims to “recruit museums and related bodies, and individuals, to sign up to the charter for social justice, and to campaign for and promote best practice.” They focus mostly on accessibility to museums as a social justice issue.

Thank you for your help in refining this draft!

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1 Comment

  1. Thanks for beginning this conversation as I think assessment in this area is sadly lacking. I think that in the measures of diversity section it will be necessary to look at the work itself –collection, exhibitions and programs. Also at images of itself that an inst communicates consciously or unconsciously to its public.

    Another resource I'd recommend is E Gurian's article on intentional civility in Oct 2014 Curator. Lists very specific criteria.

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