Confronting Ourselves Together

All-Staff Dialogues at the RISD Museum

Many museums today struggle with confronting their problematic legacies and transforming their current practices to become the diverse, inclusive institutions they aspire to be. One way the RISD Museum is taking on this work is through All-Staff Dialogues, an ongoing series of staff-directed conversations around topics relevant to social equity in museums and beyond.

All Staff Dialogue staff interacting
RISD Museum staff during All Staff Dialogue session. Photo courtesy of Mariani Lefas-Tetenes

 Cultural institutions and the Black Lives Matter movement [updated 07/02/2020]

For the past three years, the RISD Museum has engaged in staff-led dialogue sessions around issues of power, racism, and social equity within the museum field and our own institution. We are now working mostly remotely amidst multiple crises, including a climate of racial reckoning following the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and countless others while the COVID-19 pandemic continues to devastate our communities physically, emotionally, and economically. Institutions are closing and museum workers, including our coworkers and colleagues, are being furloughed and laid off in massive numbers. These crises have all prompted us to deepen our institutional commitments to racial justice and social equity with concrete actions. In our recent virtual All-Staff Dialogue session, we asked ourselves: How can we be responsive rather than reactive? What will we do next, and what will our commitment to holding each other accountable look like in practice? 

We know that systemic change and anti-racist work in museums with problematic legacies steeped in colonialism, imperialism, and white supremacy is an ongoing journey. We wrote this article last year in hopes that our experiences can inspire others to try changing institutional culture by investing in working in new, experimental ways. The museums we will return to post-COVID will have to be different. Better. These dialogues prompt us to think deeply about and question both our personal and institutional values as individual museum employees and as a collective body of workers. Are we complicit finger-pointers, or are we actively working together toward equity and inclusion?

Challenging Institutional Inertia

Many contemporary museum workers acknowledge that our current ways of working often uphold systems of oppression, exclusion, and inequality. Institutions are made up of people, but all of us can find ourselves diverting personal responsibility when the museum we work for lingers in the status quo, despite our hopes for growth and change. “I would, but my supervisor won’t let me,” “we don’t have room in the budget for that,” and “I just don’t have any time!”—these are all real barriers, but oh, the bureaucracy! At the RISD Museum, we have been working to challenge these habits. Instead of staying silent about our discomforts within the museum field and our institution, we’ve asked what it might mean if we got together with colleagues and initiated the uncomfortable conversations we need to have.

Starting in 2017, a small group of RISD Museum staff has been doing just that, through an initiative called All-Staff Dialogues. Every few months, staff members come together to practice openly speaking and actively listening to each other about complex topics and current events that are relevant to our work and lives. We meet over museum-provided coffee and donuts an hour and a half before opening to the public for the day. All staff, including part-time workers, are encouraged to come in early for these dialogues, and they are paid for their time. So far, topics have clustered around issues of race, class, access, power, and inclusion. We felt that it was crucial for staff to facilitate these conversations, rather than contracted outside facilitators. This allows us  to build our own internal capacity for dialogue facilitation and gives us the ability to make these conversations a regular and sustainable practice in our museum. So far, the All-Staff Dialogue Facilitation Team has consisted of Lily Benedict (Museum Educator for School + Teacher Programs), Matt Berry (former Marketing and PR Associate), Amber Lopez (former Nancy Elizabeth Prophet Fellow), MJ Robinson (Museum Educator for School + Teacher Programs), and Kajette Solomon (Education Program Coordinator). As junior staff in our respective departments, we have found taking on these leadership roles both individually empowering and institutionally democratizing, establishing All-Staff Dialogues as a ground-up initiative.

Our Context and Backdrop

The institutional political environment that paved the way for the development of this program is in large part thanks to the leadership of young people of color in the RISD community. Student activism on RISD’s campus in 2016 catalyzed senior staff to form a Social Equity Action Working Group committee and eventually an institution-wide Social Equity and Inclusion plan. Also in 2016, the RISD Museum hired its first Nancy Elizabeth Prophet Fellow—a two-year full-time position for artists and scholars considering the museum profession and the roles museums play in an increasingly diverse society. In June 2017, Nancy Elizabeth Prophet Fellow Amber Lopez attended a program at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, Connecticut, about how to run salon-style conversations. Since 2015, the Stowe Center has hosted Salons at Lunch, a public program where educators facilitate conversations on social justice issues in the news. After attending this training, Amber recommended that a similar practice could be useful as an internal tool to change the culture of our workplace. According to Amber,

It felt critical to engage RISD Museum staff in these conversations as internal "trainings" or "facilitated experiences" to build cultural competency and address diverging perspectives cross-departmentally. The initial goal was to have loosely facilitated conversations, by and for staff, using current issues in the museum field to address internal staff biases and gaps of knowledge. We wanted to create a space for staff to engage in "difficult conversations," to consider the limitations of their own positionality, and to learn how best to represent the objects, artists, and cultures present in the collection.  

All-Staff Dialogue Sessions and Topics

At our first All-Staff Dialogue, held in fall 2017, we posed the question “What is the museum’s responsibility when exhibiting artwork that may offend?” As a case study, we examined an incident at the 2017 Whitney Biennial. The topic was timely for us not only because the Whitney controversy had just occurred, but also because the RISD Museum was planning The Phantom of Liberty, a contemporary art exhibit that would include works dealing with themes of racialized violence, torture, genocide, and racist language. Before our dialogue, staff were asked to read the letter authored by Hannah Black and other Black artists and activists who protested the display of Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket, an abstracted rendering of Emmett Till in his coffin. We also read written responses from curators at the Whitney and Schutz herself. Our conversation opened with a consideration of the ways an institution could respond in such a scenario. It then deepened and twisted through ideas related to censorship, white consumption of media depicting violence against Black bodies, and how museums (including our own) deal with conflict.

We have had three subsequent sessions:  

  • At our second dialogue, held in late fall 2017, guest artists Maia Chao and Josephine Devanbu joined us to share a video from their project Look At Art. Get Paid.  This project contracted people who don’t typically visit art museums to visit the RISD Museum for the first time, as guest critics. The artists documented the guest critics’ feedback and shared it with museum staff, who discussed the results. The critics’ comments gave valuable insight into various barriers to access that keep many of Providence’s residents from visiting our museum.
  • In spring 2018, we tried a different format—staff from across different departments held small-group discussions in the museum’s galleries examining the messages, values, and power dynamics on display there. We discussed whose perspectives were represented and whose were not, and how our own identities informed our experiences in museum spaces.

All Staff Dialogue July 2018 session
The Carters’ “Apeshit” music video

How We Did It

In planning and facilitating these dialogues, we had no blueprint for what they might look like, how they might go, or what they might grow into. We had only a goal—to open lines of dialogue across staff. We brought our own experiences; our training as museum educators, activists, parents, and artists; and all the other identities we bring to our work. We drew on these experiences to develop our methods for All-Staff Dialogues, and we recognize that there are many forms that these dialogues could still take, and may take in the future.

One of the first steps of the facilitation team was to create a set of ground rules (also known as community agreements) that we post and share at the start of every All-Staff Dialogue. The ground rules we found appropriate for our context are as follows:

  • Use “both / and” language (instead of “but”)
  • Share the air
  • Prioritize conversation, not resolution
  • Listen to listen, not to respond
  • Acknowledge the difference between intent and impact
  • Pay attention to feelings and dynamics internally and externally

We have found these rules effective for establishing a common framework for an open conversation, and useful tools for us as facilitators when we need to move the conversation deeper or in a new direction. Even with the ground rules, however, it is neither possible nor desirable to avoid all discomfort or offense during these conversations. We acknowledge that we as facilitators are not neutral parties, but bring our own experiences and emotions to the conversations. We strive to be up front about our own perspectives while holding space for all staff to share their opinions and experiences.

While the format of our All-Staff Dialogue sessions has varied, each session has had some consistent elements:

  • Review ground rules (posted in room)
  • Review agenda (posted in room)
  • Introduce topic and essential question
  • Participate in active listening exercise
  • Open up discussion
  • Take notes, subsequently share notes
  • Pass out anonymous reflection surveys

To prepare for each All-Staff Dialogue session, the facilitation team held several working meetings to talk through current topics in the art/museum world and consider how they could be relevant for us to grapple with. These conversations helped us to process our own thoughts, feelings, and reactions to these topics and to distill the topic into one or more big questions that would guide our dialogue. Where necessary, we chose reading material or videos for staff to read/watch in advance of our dialogue. We also developed active listening exercises—short activities in which partner pairs take turns listening and speaking from personal experience in response to a prompt related to the topic of that day’s session. Active listening exercises helped everyone to get in the habit of listening to listen, not to respond, while also activating and validating each person’s voice in the room.

Outcomes and Staff Responses

One of our community agreements in these dialogues is that we prioritize dialogue, not seeking resolution or action items, as we can use other meetings for those purposes.

Anonymous staff feedback indicates that All-Staff Dialogues have provided staff with opportunities to “learn more about what people are already doing, concerned about,” and has helped individuals “to see the museum from perspectives other than my own.” One person indicated “[All-Staff Dialogues] made me more informed about and sensitive to key issues in our field.” Another staff member said “I feel empowered and supported to make changes in my area. . . . I will be more bold in my thinking.” Multiple people made comments like “[All-Staff Dialogue] changes my consciousness.” In general, staff have appreciated these moments personally and professionally, and are eager to seek next steps to connect their learning with action.

Next Steps: Expanding Our Facilitation Team

After our first year of sessions, the initial facilitation team is guiding the program toward a more institutionally sustainable model, in which more staff are involved in deciding topics, planning, and facilitating dialogues. Looking forward to 2019, our team is collaborating with thirteen other staff members who responded with interest to taking a more active role in All-Staff Dialogues. This is a diverse group from various departments, ranging from installation crew members to curators to registrars—staff who do not always get to work together.

In our first session as a larger group, we generated a robust list of possible future topics and formed small groups based on interest in those topics. The small groups will continue to meet to plan their sessions, and the larger group has also been meeting to learn with and from each other about what makes a strong plan and good facilitator for this type of program. Before any of the small facilitator groups runs their All-Staff Dialogue, the larger group will support them by acting as participants in practice run-throughs and giving feedback. Upcoming topics chosen by staff include white fragility, the ethics of data, accessibility, and climate change as it relates to the museum field. Other subjects or topics may also arise in the news or in our museum.

“Flexing the muscle” of talking and listening gives us the stamina to confront nuanced topics like race, class, ability, and gender inequities. This ground-up initiative has worked at our midsize institution and may take different forms in other contexts, but we hope our experiences can inspire others to try changing institutional culture by investing in working in new, experimental ways. These sessions implicate us as individual museum workers and as a collective body of workers to think deeply about and question our personal and institutional values. Are we complicit finger-pointers, or are we actively working together toward equity and inclusion?