OF/BY/FOR ALL is a global movement and a set of tools to help community institutions around the world become more representative OF and co-created BY their communities. In this episode, we’re joined by OF/BY/FOR ALL founder Nina Simon and Rohini Kappadath, General Manager of Immigration Museum (Australia), to find out how to create a museum for everyone.
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Nina Simon has been called a “museum visionary” by Smithsonian Magazine, a Silicon Valley Business Journal “40 under 40,” and Santa Cruz County Woman of the Year for her innovative community leadership. She is the Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History and the founder/CEO of the OF/BY/FOR ALL movement. Nina is the best-selling author of The Participatory Museum (2010), The Art of Relevance (2016) and the popular Museum 2.0 blog. She lives off the grid in the Santa Cruz mountains with 20 people, 24 chickens, 5 dogs, and 1 zipline.
Rohini Kappadath is on the Executive Leadership Team at Museums Victoria, as the General Manager of Immigration Museum. With a diverse career history spanning over 25 years, in the technology and professional services sectors, Rohini has specialized in building high-performance teams and leading growth in international markets, for multinational institutions. For US-based, global software multinational, SAS Institute Inc., Rohini started-up and established the Indian subsidiary, as its Managing Director. Her experience in working with businesses within the Asian region and global engagement was recognized at the 2015 Telstra Business Women’s Awards. Rohini is a contributor to a number of non-profit, private and academic boards including Swinburne Innovation Precinct, Commonwealth Bank Cultural Diversity Council, Research Unit into Public Cultures (University of Melbourne), International Women’s Federation of Commerce & Industry. She holds a Masters in Entrepreneurship and Innovation from Swinburne University. Rohini is a mother of three children, with an enduring commitment to family, painting and influencing global change.
Museopunks is presented by the American Alliance of Museums.
Graphic Design of the Museopunks logo is by Selena Robleto.
Suse Anderson: Welcome to Museopunks, the Podcast for the Progressive Museum. My name is Suse Anderson and I will be your host and guide today as we explore another aspect of forward-thinking museum practice. It’s been a couple of months since our last episode and I’ve been using that time to plan for and come up with a whole series of shows that I’m really excited about. I think you’re going to enjoy them too. I’ve also been working on a few side projects including a book project with Dr. Kia Winesmith and an impromptu book project with a small coterie of editors inspired by the MCN 2018 Conference. But to start the new season with a bang. I’m joined by the fabulous Nina Simon and Rohini Kappadath to talk about OF/BY/FOR ALL. A new initiative being headed by Simon to create museums and other cultural institutions that are more representative of and co-created by their communities.
This is such an exciting initiative and one that continues the work that Simon and others in the sector have done to develop more participatory and co-creative institutions. But beyond that, I think it heralds a broader shift within the sector towards institutions that have community development as a core goal, not nearly a peripheral outcome. Such changes make institutions answerable, not just to their boards and traditional stakeholders, not only to their audiences but to their communities’ writ large. In some ways, I think this refrains the mission of the museum and repositions it within its communities. It furthers the idea proposed by Stephen Weil that museums are transforming from “being about something to being for somebody.” As you’ll hear from this discussion, there are very real and concrete benefits to taking on this kind of transformation.
Nina Simon has been called a museum visionary by Smithsonian Magazine, a Silicon Valley business journal, 40 Under 40, and Santa Cruz County Woman of The Year for her innovative community leadership. She’s the Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History and the founder, CEO of, OF/BY/FOR ALL movement. Nina is the bestselling author of The Participatory Museum, The Art of Relevance and the popular Museum 2.0 blog. She lives off the grid in the Santa Cruz mountains with 20 people, 24 chickens, five dogs, and one zip line.
Rohini Kappadath is on the executive leadership team at Museums Victoria as General Manager, Immigration Museum, currently leading the transformation of the museum into a living vibrant destination that unites people across cultures and identities. Rohini brings a diverse career spanning 30 years in technology and professional services sectors. Rohini is a mother of three children with an enduring commitment to family, painting and influencing global change. Nina, Rohini welcome to Museopunks.
Rohini Kappadath: Thank you Suse. It’s great to be here and particularly with Nina.
Nina Simon: I feel the same way by both of you.
Suse: I’m so excited to have you both here for this episode. We are talking about OF/BY/FOR ALL, which is a non-profit initiative that you have started, Nina and that you are driving. That really takes the work that you’ve been doing at the MAH and takes their innovative approach to build into an initiative that you’re seeing as a global movement and an initiative to help us make innovative institutions around the world. Rohini is here as a representative of one of those institutions from the pilot program. Let’s start today by just talking a little bit about OF/BY/FOR ALL. What it is, where it comes from and why you’ve decided to really shift your position and focus on this initiative full-time?
Nina: Yeah, thank you for asking. As you know, for a long time, I’ve been an advocate for community participation in the cultural sector, in museums but also in theaters, in libraries, in parks, in all of these incredible community spaces that I see as having a public service mandate. Many of us say, “We are trying to be institutions for everyone,” but often I find that our organizations end up serving a narrow slice of our population. Over the last eight years that I’ve been leading the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, we made major changes to go from being a traditional organization serving a very typical museum or arts audience. To being one that really embraces the full diversity of our community and that as we incorporated new people into what we did, we incorporated them not just as audiences, not just becoming for them but really as partners and as leaders, so becoming of and by them as well.
I think that what we saw as a transformative opportunity at the MAH, which was the opportunity to work in partnership with our community to strengthen both our community and our museum. We see that pattern in work in so many different successful community organizations around the world. I really have come to believe that strong community organizations are of, by and for their communities not just for them. That those organizations are yes, doing incredible work to engage the diversity of their communities, to be really inclusive institutions but that inclusivity is also driving their relevance, their financial resilience, and their success.
I feel very strongly that this vision of building more inclusive institutions, it’s core to who I am, it’s core to what I’ve been doing in my work in museums but also in writing. It just kind of became a moment for me personally, Suse, where I felt like, “You know what, now is the time to throw everything I can at helping organizations that sincerely want to make this effort, to go to that next level of inclusive practice,” and so I decided to go all in.
Suse: Yeah. Really, these ideas seem like a really obvious maturation of the ideas that you’ve been working with for more than a decade now speaking about participatory museum practice and cultural practice. Are there specific things that you learned or experienced as a director of the MAH that has shaped the way your thinking has developed in this space? I mean, you talk about this as being not just important for sort of our public service mandate, but also important in terms of community relevance and in terms of even financial stability. What are the specific lessons that helped crystallize the way that your thinking has developed in this space?
Nina: Well, so when I took over the MAH as its director in 2011, it was on the verge of bankruptcy. It was about to close its doors and so we really were able to transform this organization from a very precarious position to an incredibly strong position financially, and in terms of attendance, and presence, and prominence in the community by taking this community participatory approach. One of the things I’ve noticed as we start talking more and more about diversity, equity, and inclusion in our institutions, is that those things are often seen as a cost, and they’re often framed strictly in terms of the moral progressive necessity that they’re the right thing to do.
I absolutely think it’s the right thing to do but I’ve also experienced very personally, that I also believe it’s the smart thing to do and that if we want to have, not just audiences but partners, members, donors, collaborators who represent where our countries and where our cities are going demographically, we have to start involving those people in everything that we do. I think that I lived that very personally at the MAH. We went from 17,000 visitors per year to 150,000 visitors per year. We went from seven staff to 40 and we did it by becoming deeply engaged with our community, so that this institution became of, by and for our community.
As we work with organizations through OF/BY/FOR ALL, we’re looking to work with organizations who feel that compelling urgency to make change and, hopefully, most of them are not facing the kind of intense financial crisis that the MAH was facing when I started it. We have really seen, Suse, that the organizations that are really zooming forward with this work are the ones who find themselves in a strategic moment, where they don’t just feel like, “Oh yeah, diversity, we should be doing something with that,” but they really feel that this is critical to their future as an organization and as an effective organization in their community.
I actually think Rohini’s story really fits into that because the Immigration Museum is not in the same situation as the MAH at all, but I just saw so clearly from the beginning of their involvement, how clearly tied this work was to what they’re all about and what they’re trying to achieve.
Suse: That is a perfect time to switch to Rohini and your museum is part of the first wave pilot of OF/BY/FOR ALL of the change network. Why did the Immigration decide to join this movement and to join the network? What is that urgency or what inspired that sense that this is something that was so critical for you as an organization?
Rohini: Well, that’s a great question, Suse. I think I should start by just setting the context. Immigration Museum is part of Museums Victoria, which is the state government body that runs various museums in Melbourne including Melbourne Museum, Scienceworks, the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre and the Royal Exhibition Building, which is a world heritage listed building and the Immigration Museum. We’re one of five in that family and the Museums Victoria’s strategic plan for 2017 to 2025 had a priority initiative, which was around the transformation of the Immigration Museum. The intent was to transform the museum to be a living, vibrant, multicultural center for the exploration of identity and multicultural life in Melbourne and in Victoria.
This required us to focus on broadening and deepening engagement with underrepresented audiences. We’re really fortunate to be living in a city, Melbourne, which is regarded as the most successful multicultural city in the world. Accessing these audiences was really not an issue at an issue at all because they’re all around us. We saw the OF/BY/FOR ALL first research project as a really important opportunity for us to not only deepen our community involvement, develop suitable tools and methodologies to drive accountability, to accelerate our mission aligned change, but also then to be part of this global network and to work closely with Nina Simon and her team to understand best practice in this area.
Our ambitions were high, and we knew that in order to really shift the dial towards corporation and co-ownership with community, we really needed to hook this into the overall strategy of the institution. I should also add though that Immigration Museum has a very proud history of working with communities right across Victoria for more than 20 years. Since opening in 1998 that we’ve worked with about 80 communities to highlight the city’s origins, to share stories of those who’ve migrated here, and the positive influences they’ve had in cultivating a rich and multicultural life. For us to do this, it was a natural fit and in this was now about scaling up, and I’d love to talk more about that later.
Suse: Yeah, that’s great. Let’s talk about what the pilot program looks like and what it involves and in fact, who else is in the network, Nina?
Nina: Yeah. Basically, we’re constructing OF/BY/FOR ALL with two parts. One part is about broad movement building, so offering up free tools on the internet to anybody who wants to explore ways to become more of, by and for their community. Then we’re really focusing most of our energy on this program we’re calling the change network, which is for organizations that are ready to say, “We’re ready to make a commitment to really making changes to become more deeply representative of our community, more co-created by our community and more welcoming for our community.” I personally feel like in midst all the great, and nuanced, and deep conversation happening today around inclusion and diversity and equity.
A lot of it is focused on the why and the what, and we’ve really been focusing on building OF/BY/FOR ALL to focus on the how. To support that manager, that organization that says, “We’re committed, now where do we start, and what do we do and where do we go next?” Basically, we think about OF/BY/FOR ALL, the change network program as having three elements. One is tools, so these recipes for change. Very tangible things you can do to change how you engage community in the work that you do.
One piece of it is about accountability, so that’s about having a goal, tracking your progress, getting coaching along the way. And the third part is about building this global community because I know that for myself from my experience at the MAH and also people I’ve met along the way. Often those of us who are doing this work can feel quite lonely or like oddballs and there’s a real power to building this global community. So that if your supervisor, or your board, or somebody asks, “What are you doing at this place?” You can point to others and say, “Hey, we’re part of a global conversation about organizations doing work in community differently.”
The pilot, we really brought together a group of 21 organizations that intentionally represented very diverse sectors and budget sizes, and to some extent geography as well. We have a couple of all volunteer organizations with budgets of under $500,00 US per year. We have a couple of huge organizations with budgets of $15 or $20 million per year and everything in between because we’re really curious about, “Does the how look different for different sizes?” Then similarly with sector, about a third of the organizations that are part of, OF/BY/FOR ALL are in the traditional cultural sector.
Those would be museums, theaters, heritage sites. But then we also have organizations like public libraries, public parks. We have a transgender health center, we have an organization that’s like a YMCA-style organization and a couple of organizations that do arts programming in communities without a physical building, including a public radio station. Again, because this pilot is a research project, we really wanted to push ourselves and challenge ourselves to test, what kinds of organizations does this work for and are there certain kinds of organizations either by size or by sector for whom this is not a fit as we’re trying to figure out how this program and how this movement should grow?
Suse: Yeah, it’s one of the things I’ve been interested in finding out more as I’ve been reading about the program and exploring the program, is how participants in the pilot program are helping shape the process and the initiative as you think about expanding it. But also what those early experiences are teaching you, Nina, but also teaching participants? I’d love to hear from both of you about what these first five months have been showing you? Either Rohini in your case about your institution and Nina about what this project might look like as it does start to fail?
Rohini: Well, Suse for us this participating in the OF/BY/FOR ALL network has enabled us to send a clarion call within the organization that as a museum, Immigration Museum intended to make this philosophy a key part of our DNA going forward. The good thing about that is that we have a very strong foundation to build upon because as I said that the team has been doing this for a number of years with great success. We’ve run three community festivals every year, we’ve worked closely with community, we have a wide number of people in Melbourne who are very vested and personally invested in the museum and its success. We already have that sense of community around us.
Really, taking this forward and what we recognized is that we needed to formalize all the ways in which we co-created with community, and this is where I’d like to talk a bit more about the scaling up of our efforts. It meant formalizing things like mentorship programs. Spaces, like when we work with community, do we have a room where they could sit with us and actually co-create the programs? It encouraged conversations around sharing agency. It required us to shift our mindset, it required us to be more agile in terms of handing over power to community groups and really respecting and recognizing them as the cultural knowledge holders.
Whilst we have been doing this for a number of years, it really made sure that we had a way in which we communicated with a Community Advisory Group so that they were involved in decision making for the programming calendar for the museum.
Suse: I’m really interested in this idea about the formalization of things, of practices that are happening informally because I do think there are a lot of organizations and a lot of people who have been influenced in large part by the work that you’ve been doing for many years now really working around participatory practices. I think these things are happening in our institutions. Do you think this idea of formalizing things and building policies and practices around them so that they are really built into the fabric of the institution is one of the defining features that starts to differentiate how OF/BY/FOR ALL becomes more embedded within institutions?
Nina: Yes. Although I guess I would say, it’s still too young both OF/BY/FOR ALL but also all this work happening to say that we are going to formalize to the extent that we can put a sticker that says, “Best practices,” on it. I think that’s really not our intention. I’ve been often using this analogy that what we’re offering up are recipes for change but that in your organization, in your geographic context, in your community you may need to substitute an ingredient, you may have a different way of approaching it and that’s a great thing.
I think that from my perspective going back to this idea of the how, I see a lot of organizations, where when they first want to get started with something like, for example, Rohini just was talking about Community Advisory Groups. A lot of organizations are getting serious about this and there are a lot of models out there but everybody is starting from scratch and exploring. What we’re trying to offer is not to say, “This is the only recipe for how to make a Community Advisory Group,” but to pull together tools to say, “Hey, here are some key questions you can ask yourself as you’re creating this group and here are four different models for it, and four different links to four different examples of it.” Kind of packaging that so that somebody who’s ready to go has the tools to do it.
Because in my experience, we can lose a lot of momentum between our enthusiasm for something and our ability to actually operationalize it. We’re trying to accelerate people who are already energized about this ability to actually do it. We have often when I think about the growth of, OF/BY/FOR ALL as a movement. I often look at movements like The Green Building Movement, which did not start with LEED-certified buildings. It started with a group of architects who said, “Hey, we want to be more environmentally conscious and sustainable. Let’s start swapping practices, let’s start figuring this out.” And decades on there’s this certification process in the United States that is very codified and very known from a brand perspective as well.
Or, I look at something like the social benefit corporation movement with B Corps and this idea that what we’re trying to do right now is energize and catalyze a community who are doing the work, make it easier for more organizations to do the work and eventually, I think it could grow to a place where there is such a thing as OF/BY/FOR ALL certified organization. I think we’re very far from that and we’re deliberately not starting there because we know that what we’re learning with and from all of these organizations, is going to influence our collective understanding of what that best practice or what that certification might even be.
Suse: Yeah. It’s interesting hearing you talk about this and this idea of movement building because it does sound like there’s a lot of community organizing principles.
Suse: That it also sounds true of the kinds of changes within institutions, not just the movement building but its community organization at a museum level within a library or any of the types of non-profits and other institutions that you’re working with. Are you explicitly drawing from community organization models when thinking about the program?
Nina: Yeah, absolutely and that’s been core to how the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History works for a long time. Many of our staff come from a community organizing background, we do a lot of training around that and actually, many of the tools we’re offering up in the OF/BY/FOR ALL network are sort of Community Organizing 101. Things like how do you cold call people in a community who you don’t know anything about? How do you have a first meeting with a potential partner and have it instead of being transactional, have it be something that’s really about establishing a relationship towards kind of mutual benefit? And those are certainly things that I’ve learned from colleagues in community organizing.
Then I would say at the macro level on the movement perspective. Yes, some of the movements that we’ve been most inspired by in thinking about how to build OF/BY/FOR ALL are movements that are completely outside of the culture sector. For example, one of the ones that really inspires me is called The 100,000 Homes Campaign, which was a campaign across North America to end chronic homelessness. Similarly, they had determined through lived experience, some very specific practices that worked to transform what was happening for people who were long-term homeless in the US. They socialized that toolkit of practices and they really created an energizing campaign for, in that case, cities that wanted to get involved and wanted to make a specific commitment to ending homelessness.
Similarly, right now OF/BY/FOR ALL is organized around this pledge campaign, where any organization that joins a change network is making a pledge to involve a specific number of people from specific underrepresented communities with their work. Collectively, we’re working together to become OF/BY/FOR ALL but that might mean that one organization, we have a history museum that’s focused on LGBTQ youth, we have a library focused on Somali immigrant mothers, we have a park focused on bicycle advocates. They’re each focusing on a different community, who they see as underrepresented and having the potential to make a transformative impact on the future of their organization and the future of their community.
Suse: It’s also not trying to be OF/BY/FOR ALL immediately with everyone all at once. It is focusing on who are we creating a relationship with and how do we make that a sustainable and meaningful relationship as a first step with one or a small number of specific partners? Is that right to categorize it that way?
Nina: That’s correct and it’s actually been one of the things that has been, I think both challenging and really liberating and effective for many of the organizations is, especially those who are in very big cities will say, “Well, how can we pick just one community to focus on? There are so many communities who are important to us.” We always say, “Absolutely, but if you are here to learn new practices for how you’re going to involve communities, we really encourage you to start with one community so that you can start to build the skills and behaviors, and go deep with them, and understand what will meaningful relationship look like and how much could we scale that to different communities.”
I think that there are some organizations like Immigration Museum that had much more a confident history in involving individual communities, so they had a more creative approach to how they defined and articulated their community of focus. But we ask every organization when they’re starting out in the change network to pick just one community of focus because we’re asking them to then do things like, “Go visit events and organizations in that community, and sit down one on one with leaders in that community and tour your space from that community’s perspective.”
I think that often when organizations start thinking about involving more diverse audiences, they immediately jump to everyone who’s not involved and I think that that is a recipe for overwhelmed, confusion or for superficial work. We’ve really taken the attitude, and again this is something patterned in what we’ve done at the MAH. That if we work with individual communities deeply, it will teach us more about how to involve more and more communities in what we do.
Suse: Yeah. I think that’s really important and again, it goes to this question of getting to the how you start to make these changes rather than just looking at the why, because even thinking about things like resource allocation is really tied to how you decide to prioritize things. Rohini, Nina gave us a great little teaser about how you’ve been thinking about your focus communities. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Rohini: Sure. Well, initially we started out wanting our focus community to be this Community Advisory Group and we have made strong inroads into reaching out to various collaborators that we’ve worked with in the past. What we then discovered that alongside of that work there was the day to day development of new ideas in the museum and we started to implement all of this great philosophy and the learnings into our current Summer of Love Season which features the Love Exhibition, Kahlil Gibran: The Garden of the Prophet, and Grow, Gather, Share exhibition as well.
We started to live the new philosophies through these experiences in the museum and we’ve already seen a huge boost in our visitor numbers and also the way in which we worked with the community. We tell a number of stories in the love exhibition, which captures the essence of how people, how humans love across cultures and identities. With the Kahlil Gibran exhibition, we worked very closely with what’s called the Community Reference Group. We had about, let’s say about at least 10 or 11 people including a former premier of the state, who has a Lebanese background, a Gibran researcher, a number of people who are key community influencers and business leaders.
We had a wonderful mix in that community reference group and that reference group, we met with them every month and involved then in the process of bringing this exhibition from Bsharri in Lebanon. What we found is that the Lebanese community was so touched and honored by our bringing this exhibition, which had come for the first time out of Bsharri. That this was a great way for us to engage that community and of course, Kahlil Gibran is a poet and a philosopher of international repute, so this was not specifically for the Lebanese community but it certainly enabled us to apply our OF/BY/FOR ALL learnings in that environment.
Even the Grow, Gather, Share and what that exhibition is about? It’s about chefs growing food and creating culinary delights and what we’ve discovered is … and that’s meant that we’ve created a summer garden at the Immigration Museum. This has enabled us to then work as a good neighbor with apartments very close to the museum and we have the Port Authority apartments. We find ourselves engaging with them and whereas previously, residents in these apartments took issue with loud music when we had run festivals and so on. They’re now interested in taking on the ongoing care of this community garden. So it’s been a delightful interaction with our neighbors.
Again, we’ve been able to really apply all of our thinking from the OF/BY/FOR ALL program to all of these interactions. I think how this has impacted our organization is that day to day we have the OF/BY/FOR ALL philosophy being embedded more and more deeply into core museum practice, into our operations and into our thinking about future strategies. There’s another very nice example of how this has impacted us at Immigration Museum outside of our key pledge. As I said, the other key pledge is a big win for us. That’s something we’re working on and we were getting people on board. We are also very keen on raising appropriate funds so that we are able to give … value people’s time, offer them honorariums, so it’s not just about bringing together a group of people.
I mean we’ve got people interested in working with us on the Community Advisory Group … that’s the easy part. But the next part for us is investing appropriately in running and managing, and facilitating a Community Advisory Group with meaningful objectives, meaningful decisions to make, a program backing all of their interactions and as I said, an honorarium for their work with us. There are certain ethics and principles driving a lot of our decisions and so, we’re moving slowly in some areas because it involves raising some investments. It involves building underpinning foundation programs. For example, we want to give the Community Advisory Group a process by which they can review expressions of interest given to us by community.
That whole program is currently being built but alongside in parallel, we’re seeking out the quick wins as well. For example, we are re-imagining what was previously called the Immigration Discovery Center and the discovery center was previously dedicated to the delivery of public information services on journeys migrants undertook to come to Australia. It’s a beautiful space with wonderful blue stone pillars and it’s just a really warm space. We’ve now designated the space for experimentation, for expression of community-led ideas and we’re capturing requests through the website, through what’s called Ask Us and we’re encouraging use of the space through word of mouth.
We’re talking to our visitor experience staff and telling them that when they’re talking to community who are expressing an interest to show them the space as one where they can come in and run community events or meetings with the groups et cetera. Just yesterday, we had a wonderful story time with young kids in partnership with our local kindergarten. That’s how the OF/BY/FOR ALL philosophy is guiding a lot of our thinking about how we’re engaging with our immediate neighbors, where do the low hanging fruit lie in terms of bringing community into the museum and making them feel like this is their museum? This is a space in which they can choose to express themselves.
We have a structured process that captures all these requests, we have resources allocated to the space. We’ve got a facilitator for the discovery center. We’re looking at renaming that center and we’re currently seeking ideas on the name change. Will it be a community hub, will it be like a collaboratory, will it be a discovery lounge, for example. We’re really lucky that we have a wonderful young staff member, who is very committed to engaging community into that space. That’s like a designated incubator for us for the OF/BY/FOR ALL program.
Nina: You know, for me hearing Rohini’s great stories makes me reflect on how for an organization like Immigration Museum, which had a deep history of doing work with community. I feel like what I’m hearing in your story, Rohini is the ways in which this framework become an accelerant and an amplifier of values and energy you already had. We also have other organizations in this change network pilot who are really engaging community for the first time and are using our tools to start entering into conversations they maybe have never had before. And so we have organizations across the spectrum.
I think what’s most important to me, when I think about the success of where we want to build the movement but also really personally, is that I want to see action and change in our fields. I feel like while I appreciate and respect all the conversation that’s happening about these issues of inclusion. I am somebody who is so energized and always impatient for action. I think everything we’re building is about asking ourselves, “How can we accelerate this work in organizations that are already doing it? How can we provide support for those managers, for those activists within organizations that want to get it going? How can we help people manage up within their own organizations by giving them tools to give more credibility and legitimacy to these things that they’ve been energized about but haven’t had that kind of stamp of approval or the sense of others are doing it around the world.”
I think that the reason I’m taking this big risk and leaving my job as a museum director to focus full-time on this and the reason we’ve put together this team was Shelley Bernstein and Lauren Benetua, is because all of us have seen how powerful this action is and we just want to do everything we can to help more of it happen in the world.
Rohini: Yeah and Nina, I would love just to share more around how this work is impacting us at the Immigration Museum, particularly around what we’re starting to call hyper collaboration. We as an organization are now ready to embrace a very disciplined approach to this kind of collaboration at scale. We see the OF/BY/FOR ALL philosophy enabling us to set up this, a framework for that community engagement at scale. Some of the differences are that we’re now setting goals for community engagement, we’re adopting these new mindsets and behaviors to strengthen our work.
We’re shifting our focus as well in our role from being sole creators to co-creators, and facilitators, and enablers. It’s about how we’re seeing ourselves and how our program team as well are seeing their role as enablers and accelerators. We’re also looking at how we’re sharing our resources and our expertise with community, so our focus is shifting to building community capability and capacity in community so they know how to work with museums because museums are very, very difficult places to work with.
I know that time and time again, each time we work with community, we know that there are barriers that they have to overcome in working with us. We’re challenging the status quo on these existing processes that were appropriate 20 years ago and maybe even 10 and five years ago. But they no longer serve our objective now and we’re starting to track our progress towards these goals. We’re collecting participant data to establish that baseline. I think that issue of scaling up and making this the new norm is where we’re trying to get to and by no means are we there yet. No.
Even though we’ve had experience we’ve done it, for example, at specific times on our terms and we have engaged with communities we’ve chosen to engage with. A lot is still shifting, this is a work in progress and we’re just wanting to become more broadly welcoming of all people. We’re wanting to overcome those internal barriers, those unwieldy processes that make us less welcoming than we aspire to be, so we’re constantly questioning ourselves and this fits in beautifully with our new vision and mission, which the museum has been on a journey to building that new vision and mission, where we have that we agreement to broaden our sights on becoming a place that is connected to our shared … where people are connected to a shared humanity and embrace diversity for a just future.
Suse: Yeah. Rohini, I hear you talk. You made mention about museums being quite difficult for people to engage in and we know that there are quite high barriers for a lot of people when it comes to engaging with museums. I wonder whether this re-orientation of institutions to become of, for and by all really changes the essential role of the museum within its community or of really any non-profit institution within its community?
Rohini: That is true and this is why this work is not easy and it really does involve a big shift in our mindset. Some museums are better placed to be able to do this than others. And certainly our museum, given the work that we’ve done with community, we have a leaning in that direction already but it’s not about represent … I think the shift is that it’s not about representing community and community voices. It’s really about sharing agency, handing over agency and letting community represent themselves. Acknowledging community as the cultural knowledge holders and recognizing and respecting their expertise, bringing them to the table as equal partners and then recognizing that the museum has its expertise as well that we bring to the table. Together we can create a much better outcome and create the kind of change we want in society, and literally create the kind of society we all want to live in.
Nina: I hear that with so much excitement and then I also at the same time think about the … one of the beautiful things about running this first wave as a research project is, we’ve been asking Rohini and all 21 of the organizations to give us very detailed reports on how they’re using the tools we’re giving them and what progress they’re making. And I was just pulling up, always at the end of the month we ask for progress reports. My box has been filling with February progress reports and I just see things like a tiny saying, “We had set a goal to have more ethnically diverse interns this summer. Our goal was to bring in two and we’re bringing in 10.”
Yeah, and just very specific things that organizations are changing. I really feel like we’re living in a moment where there’s a lot of intellectual focus on these topics. There’s a lot of emotional desire to do the work and we are trying to make it easier for those who are motivated to do it because I think that often that can be mystifying, and for a long time with my writing and with speaking, I felt both proud to share what the MAH was doing. Also, a little bit nervous whenever somebody would say, “Oh well, it’s because you’re in Santa Cruz,” or, “Oh, it’s because you are this.”
I think that the more Rohinis there are out there, the more different kinds of organizations of different sizes, in different places, in very different context are doing this work, the more it becomes something that can be institutionalized as to what you were saying, Suse. A re-orientation of what organizations can be as opposed to just pointing to a few organizations and saying, “Well, they’re doing things in a very different way over there but that can’t work for all of us.” I would say personally, I don’t expect all organizations or all museums to join the of, by, for all movement.
I expect that there is a healthy, energized group of organizations out there who say, “Yeah, we identify as being centered on our community. We identify with the idea that for us success looks like being of, by and for our community and we’d like a way to have more clarity about how to do that, and more legitimacy, and more support in doing that,” and that’s exactly what we’re trying to build.
Suse: That is a really good chance to pitch. I’m pretty sure, if I know my listeners well, that a lot of the people who are listening to this podcast are exactly the sort of people who want to take that action and take those next steps themselves. You’re in a pilot project right now, what are the longer term plans in terms of rolling out this as a movement but also how can people who do want to get involved, even at a personal level, how can they be involved?
Nina: Yeah. Okay, so and let me start with the second one. The easiest way to get involved and get started is to go to the OF/BY/FOR ALL website at ofbyforall.org and you’ll find some free tools and resources right there including a self-assessment, so you can get a sense of how your organization succeeds and struggles right now with being OF/BY/FOR ALL and also how what you’re doing measures up across 1500 people in 47 countries who have tried that so far. As well as toolkits on how to co-create an exhibition, how to do audience data collection, a bunch of different tools like that.
Then as for the change network, which is where we’re putting most of our energy, we’re actually recruiting a second wave right now focusing, in this case again, with an invited group based on people who had expressed interest in the first wave and had applied. But I expect that by the fall of this year of 2019, we’ll start opening up bigger and bigger waves. My goal is that by the end of 2020, we have 200 organizations enrolled and participating and that it can grow much bigger than that in the future.
I think that if you go to the website, the best way to get notified about opportunities is to sign up to the email list. It’s very much a startup, it’s very much evolving and it’s very much a non-profit, where we also have to figure out how to raise the money to make it all work. We’re putting our full energy into this and we’ve got really committed partners alongside us, and so we would love to have more organizations. I get these emails every day and I love, love, love hearing people who say, “Our museum, our library, our park, our organization is ready and interested in doing this. We know it will be messy, we know that we’ll have to stretch ourselves and we can’t wait to get started.”
If that’s you please go to the website, please send me a note and join us in this work to build the kinds of inclusive organizations that I believe will not only empower our communities but will make our organizations the resilient, reflective, effective organizations we want them to be.
Rohini: To add to that, Nina, the case for OF/BY/FOR ALL is made around staying around relevance, around visitation results and we’ve had record visitation from various festivals we ran recently in collaboration with a community like the Blue Black Beats and was One Beat, One Love. Of course, around financial sustainability, I think museums are the future. With dwindling and shrinking external grants et cetera we have to find ways to become more financially independent and I think involving the community in this way is really the way in which we can indeed achieve the … not only higher visitation but also staying relevant for our audiences.
Suse: Yeah, absolutely. Nina, Rohini this has been such a lovely conversation. Thank you both so much for joining me and hopefully, we can check back in, in the future and find out a little bit more about how things have developed as the pilot program develops, and grows, and the movement continues to grow.
Nina: Wonderful. We would love to.
Rohini: Yes. Thank you, Suse.
Suse: Nina, Rohini thank you both so much for that inspirational discussion. I think it was the perfect discussion, in fact, to kick off Museopunks third season. In the coming months, we’re going to be talking about topics like paradigmatic change in museums, shifts in hiring practices and workers’ rights and a lot more. I hope you’ll join me on this journey and for this third season as we explore progressive practice in museums and what it looks like today. As always, I’ve popped links to much of what we spoke about in the show notes, which you can find at museopunks.org along with transcripts of every episode.
Museopunks is presented every month by the American Alliance of Museums. You can connect with me on Twitter @Museopunks or @Shineslike and of course, you can subscribe anytime at iTunes or Stitcher. Since my daughter started going to daycare, I’ve said some version of the following to her at drop off every day, “Be kind. Do something nice for somebody. Be brave and try something new.” I leave you with the same challenge.