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Museums and Responding in Times of Crisis


In recent years, museums have responded to a range of current events—from war and national movements to climate change and gun violence—in many ways, from statements to public programming and special exhibits. With a growing emphasis on making public statements and rapid media cycles, the pressure on museum leaders to respond to current events has grown significantly.

The following tipsheet and resources have been organized for use in various circumstances that may lead to a need for rapid response or the consideration and creation of public statements.

During these painful times, it’s critical that our priority is the need to take good care of one another and the communities we serve. Here are some steps that may help guide you.


Check in on yourself—and your biases

Take stock of what you truly know about current events and, perhaps more critically, what you don’t know. During periods of heightened emotions, it can be difficult to lead with curiosity and empathy, but it is also the most important time to do so. Media bias can influence how you receive news and what perspectives are privileged. Grounding yourself and identifying how you feel and why can be extremely useful in approaching conversations with those who may have differing viewpoints from your own.


Check in on—and listen to—your staff

“I just didn’t know what I could say.” We hear this phrase often as an excuse for not reaching out to those impacted by many types of crises. While it’s understandable that many of us feel unempowered to directly help the people impacted by a tragedy, as our former colleague Andrew Plumley penned in his 2020 blog post, “Acting like nothing is happening is putting your comfort over our humanity.” While these conversations may feel uncomfortable, sitting in that discomfort is a good thing. Checking in with staff members and offering your support however that may look may be more meaningful than you know. This can be particularly true for museum staff members who may be “the only one” belonging to a particular community or impacted by a crisis.

If you have employer-provided resources available such as counseling services or healthcare benefits that include mental health resources, remind them of these services and that mental health and self-care can look different for everyone—ensure that the flexibility of your sick/vacation/personal leave policy reflects that. For example, recently AAM renamed its “sick leave” to “wellness leave” to affirm that this leave can be used for mental health, self-care purposes, and care for loved ones in addition to traditional forms of sick leave.

Affinity groups can be great safe spaces for staff with similar lived experiences to check in with each other. “Safe” is a key word here and can only be experienced when people are given the trust to convene and share in confidence. Extraneous oversight and policing of these groups can be extremely damaging to trust. Instead, listen to employees’ concerns, voice respect for their experiences, remind all staff of your anti-harassment policies, and focus on your mission and commitment to inclusion.


Take a beat

Try to take a pause and seek consultation from community members or groups before making reactive decisions. Crises are often evolving situations with circumstances changing in real-time. While you may feel pressure to act right away, it’s important to find a balance between acknowledging a situation in the moment and ensuring a thoughtful approach. Fear can cause us to make decisions that seem right in the moment but are illuminated as misguided by hindsight. Our field often prides itself as a place for learning, curiosity, and new ideas—combatting censorship in favor of openness. This shouldn’t be lost during times of crisis.


Consider sharing an internal message

Like other organizations, museums often make public statements when they are being impacted by timely events. Every museum is unique in the communities it serves, its mission, and whether it’s equipped to comment on local, national, or global events; therefore, a public statement on any current event may or may not make sense for your museum.

Consider making an internal statement that aligns with your organizational values, shares your support for your staff’s wellbeing during painful times, and expresses relevant commitments (e.g., your museum’s commitment to inclusion and allyship in response to issues of equity and justice or your museum’s commitment to reducing your carbon footprint in response to climate change-fueled disasters).

When making a statement, internal or external, it’s critical to remember your commitments. What can you and your museum commit to that ensures statements are not performative? As the late director of the Illinois State Museum and champion for DEAI in the museum field, Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, noted, “If you issue a statement and [think] that’s a mark of inclusive leadership, I find that problematic. It’s more about the action.”


Practice transparency and consistency

If your museum has policies about or guidelines for responding in times of crisis, share them with your staff. Make sure you are following your guidelines with consistency and can explain how they are used to make decisions in specific circumstances. Members of your board, staff, and community, as well as donors or reporters, may have questions about why your museum weighs in on some issues but not others. Establishing a clear framework for decision-making can build trust and bring clarity in moments of heightened tension.


Thinking about issuing a public statement? If your museum has existing policies about making public statements (this might include media or communications policies, policies on any need for board approval, the policies of any parent institutions, etc.), be sure you are following the guidance laid out in these policies. Other important questions to consider include:

  • What is the connection between our mission and the issue?
  • Do our core values influence how we might consider this issue or its implications?
  • Is there a connection between the communities we seek to engage or serve more meaningfully and the issue?
  • Are we joining this conversation with something meaningful and thoughtful to say? Do we have expertise in this area? Could we add a new perspective, important information, nuance, or depth to the conversation?
  • Are we able to influence change on this issue?
  • What actions are we able and willing to take to ensure that a statement is not performative?
  • Does taking a position or putting out a statement contribute positively to the situation? Could it serve to unify—or, alternatively, could it lead to further divisions or harm?
  • What are the risks of speaking up or not speaking up (reputational, ethical, security, financial, etc.)?
  • Have staff had the opportunity to have their voices heard on the issue, and have we taken the time to listen to their input carefully?
  • Who is at the table when making decisions about issuing statements? Are people with a range of perspectives and/or expertise available to consult if appropriate?
  • How can our museum’s assets—the knowledge, collections, programs, etc.—help people better understand current events, form more nuanced opinions, and understand new perspectives?
  • How can we prepare and support our staff, particularly our front-line staff, for any pushback we receive in response to a statement?


A note on statements and your museum’s nonprofit status: Your museum’s nonprofit 501(c)(3) status does not necessarily prohibit it from issuing statements on current events or advocating and lobbying on public policy issues of interest to your museum. Nonprofit status does, however, expressly prohibit your organization from directly or indirectly participating in or intervening in any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Violating this prohibition could result in revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of monetary penalties. Learn more about the difference between lobbying and advocacy from Independent Sector and partisan electioneering from the IRS and see additional resources from AAM.*

While making a statement may often feel like the most immediate action to take, consider pausing first. Caring for your staff and the communities you serve should always be a priority, as well as caring for your own wellbeing too. By focusing on the people impacted by current events and our shared humanity, the decisions you make next may become a lot clearer.

* These resources are provided for informational purposes only and do not serve as formal legal advice. It is always recommended to consult your own legal counsel with specific questions about you or your museum’s activities.


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