Monday, December 28, 2015

Give Yourself Some SPACE in 2016

Every once in a while I look at my growing toddler and think: time will never go backwards. She'll never be this age again. Sometimes, that's a relief. Sometimes, the thought invokes pre-nostalgic fear. But mostly, watching her grow reminds me that time keeps moving relentlessly forward, whether we like it or not.

How do we tackle the problem of time? Some people attack the problem by sleeping less. Some seek to maximize and quantify time, building personal efficiency engines to squeeze out a few more seconds or minutes of joy each day.

In 2016, I'm choosing to take a different approach, inspired by Albert Einstein. I'm confronting the problem of diminishing time by making more space.

When you make space for yourself and others--physically or metaphorically--you expand your world. I've always loved the idea of "space-making" as a strategy for personal care and interpersonal empowerment. This past summer, my museum hosted a retreat for diverse professionals to explore space-making in deep ways. We talked about it. We shared tips and what ifs. We tested out each other's preferred ways of making space, and we tried to develop new space-making solutions to each other's problems.

The result is the Space Deck - 56 ways to make space for yourself and others. 100 extraordinary campers developed hundreds of different spacemaking ideas, which we developed, tested, and distilled into this deck of 56.

Just like a deck of playing cards, The Space Deck is divided into suits, representing different ways to make space through STILLNESS, CREATIVITY, COURAGE, ACTIVISM, RELATIONSHIPS, MOVEMENT, RITUAL, and ENVIRONMENT.

The Space Deck addresses frequent questions at work, like "how can we make space for everyone's voice to be heard in this meeting?," as well as personal questions, like "how can I find some peace in a world of chaos?" The cards share techniques that help you tackle your fears, declutter your mind, connect with your senses, and confront injustice.

You can check out all the spacemaking cards by suit on the Space Deck website. But if you prefer to hold space in your hand (Einstein would approve), you can buy your own personal deck to have and hold. Special thanks to Beck Tench, Elise Granata, Jason Alderman, and all the MuseumCampers who co-created the Space Deck together. All proceeds from Space Deck sales will support future creative retreats and camper scholarships.

Time won't slow down. Instead of trying to race time or trick it or beat it into submission, buy yourself some space in 2016. You'll be amazed how roomy it makes the day.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Can We Talk about Money? Tweetchat on #RadicalGiving December 18

On December 18, at 10am PT/1pm ET, I invite you to join the denizens of Museum 2.0, Museum Commons, and Incluseum for a 30-min tweetchat about how and why we can give for change at #RadicalGiving. We've each written some preliminary thoughts about giving to prime the tweetchat. Here are my reflections (theirs are at the links above). Please join us on Friday on twitter to talk more.

I remember the first time I asked someone for money. I had just taken the job as director of a museum that was struggling financially. If we didn't raise substantial funds in my first few weeks on the job, we'd have to close our doors.

I stood in my bathroom, looking in the mirror. I tried saying, "Can I count on you for ten thousand dollars?" without choking or bursting out laughing.

The first few times I asked for money--heck, the first few years--it felt awkward. But it also felt amazing. I saw how we were able to garner support for work I was passionate about. How we could build a more relevant and valued museum. How we could expand our impact. How donors could be partners in change. I learned the addictive power of asking.

The more I asked, the more I found myself thinking about giving. I started asking on behalf of other organizations I care about. My husband and I started being more intentional, and bolder, with our own giving. The more I asked, the more people asked me. Even with limited means, I saw how our own giving could make a difference.

At the same time, I became more and more aware of the screwed-up societal inequities that make philanthropy possible. One of the ways we redistribute wealth in an inequitable society is by asking rich people to voluntarily donate. And then we celebrate their generosity, rarely questioning why they had the capacity to give in the first place. Especially in the arts, research shows an alarming imbalance in what kinds of organizations have access to grants and donations. Our system of philanthropy often reinforces the inequity that it theoretically has the power to disrupt.

I decided that in my own limited way, I wanted to contribute in two ways:
  1. by developing a strategy for my own giving that helps boost organizations that have powerful impact AND are more subject to philanthropic inequity than others.
  2. by trying, where I can, to talk more openly with friends and colleagues about philanthropy.
My husband and I don't have a master plan for our giving, but we have started to identify some things that are important to us. Locally, we give to organizations for which we volunteer. We give to organizations with leaders who we believe in. We try to give early, to help leaders who are starting out to believe in themselves and their ability to raise funds for their work. We try to talk to friends--especially those doing well financially--about integrating philanthropy into financial plans. Yes, it feels awkward. But other people are talking to them about investments and trips and cars. Why shouldn't we feel as comfortable talking about ways to buy into social change?

That's on the personal side. Professionally, I've always struggled with what organizations to support--especially in museums and the arts. I admire many around the world. I can't support a fraction of those I love. How should I narrow the field?

Bearing in mind the data on who has access to philanthropic capital, I've decided to give to organizations that are rooted in and/or led by communities of color. This year, that included: Rainier Valley Corps, a Seattle-based leadership development program for people of color; the Laundromat Project, a New York-based neighborhood arts organization working in communities of color; and the South Asian American Digital Archive, about which I know little but was encouraged to support by a colleague volunteering her time to a project of mine.

These are organizations that inspire me. I've learned from their work and their leaders. I'm trying to more frequently convert my admiration into cash--just as I encourage people to do as a fundraiser for my organization every day.

I've noticed that the more time I spend fundraising as part of my job, the more comfortable I get talking about money. Money has become a currency of my work. I talk about it. I think about it. I treat it the same way I treat ideas and people and objects and stories. It is an essential, powerful part of getting the work done.

I realize that not everyone is comfortable talking about philanthropy, or about money. When we do so in our field, we're often focused on pay inequities for the work that we do. But pay and philanthropy are two separate topics. We should be willing to talk about both.

Talking about money is like talking about death. The more we do it, the more we are in control of our own fates. Talking about money helps us honestly and unflinchingly tackle challenges we face in our society. The more I talk about it, the more power I see it has--and the more I feel I have an ability to influence that power, however small my influence might be.

Many professionals--myself included--have the capacity to give. We give as donors. We give as volunteers. Let's not be silent about this giving. We can be leaders with our dollars and our time. We can influence change when we put our money where our hearts are.


As alluded to above, topics like the role of money, or the equivalent (time/work), in bringing about radical inclusive change are little discussed in our field.

We have some questions we want to pose to YOU in an upcoming #RadicalGiving Tweetchat on December 18 at 10am PT / 1pm ET.

Below, find some questions that came from our joint discussion on these subjects and that we will ask for your responses on during the tweetchat:
  • Q1A. What is your personal motivation to give to support inclusive change and those who are leading change? 
  • Q1B. How do you give? 
  • Q2. What do you give your time/money to? Let’s signal boost these projects and efforts! 
  • Q3. How can we have these conversations about money more in museums? 
  • Q4. If money talks, how can we influence the conversation?

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

A Different Story of Thanksgiving: The Repatriation Journey of Glenbow Museum and the Blackfoot Nations

I spent last week holed up in a cabin, working on my forthcoming book, The Art of Relevance. One of the most powerful books I read while doing research was We are Coming Home: Repatriation and the Restoration of Blackfoot Cultural Confidence (read it free here, great appreciation to Bob Janes for sharing it with us). The book is a deep account of repatriation of spiritual objects from museums to native people, written by museum people and Blackfoot people together. I hope this synopsis might inspire you to read their full incredible story. 

How do institutions build deep relationships with community partners? What does it look like when institutions change to become relevant to the needs of their communities--and vice versa?

Going deep is a process of institutional change, individual growth, and most of all, empathy. It requires all parties to commit. Institutional leaders have to be willing and able to reshape their traditions and practices. Community participants have to have to be willing to learn and change too. And everyone has to build new bridges together.

That’s what happened when the Blackfoot people and the Glenbow Museum worked together over the course of twenty years to repatriate sacred medicine bundles from the museum to the Blackfoot. 

This story starts in 1960s, though of course, the story of the Blackfoot people and their dealings with museums started way before that. Blackfoot people are from four First Nations: Siksika, Kainai, Apatohsipiikani, and Ammskaapipiikani (Piikani). Together, the four nations call themselves the Niitsitapi, the Real People. The Blackfoot mostly live in what is now the province of Alberta, where the Glenbow Museum resides.

Like many ethnographic museums around the world, Glenbow holds a large number of artifacts in its collection that had belonged to native people. Many of the most holy objects in its collection were medicine bundles of the Blackfoot people.

A medicine bundle is a collection of sacred objects—mostly natural items—securely wrapped together. Traditionally, museums saw the bundles as important artifacts for researchers and the province, helping preserve and tell stories of the First Nations. Museums believed they held the bundles legally, purchased through documented sales. By protecting the bundles, museums were protecting important cultural heritage for generations to come. Many museums respected the bundles’ spiritual power by not putting them on public display. They made the bundles available for native people to visit, occasionally to borrow. But not to keep.

The Blackfoot people saw it differently. For the Blackfoot, these bundles were sacred living beings, not objects. They had been passed down from the gods for use in rituals and ceremonies. Their use, and their transfer among families, was an essential part of community life and connection with the gods. The bundles were not objects that could be owned. They were sacred beings, held in trust by different keepers over time. If they had been sold to museums, those sales were not spiritually valid. They were not for sale or purchase by any human or institution.

Why had the objects been sold in the first place? Many medicine bundles had been sold to museums in the mid-1900s, when Blackfoot ceremonial practices were dying out. The 1960s were a low point in Blackfoot ceremonial participation. Ceremonial practices had ceased to be relevant to most Blackfoot people, due in large part to a century-long campaign by the Canadian government to “reeducate” native people out of their traditions. Blackfoot people are as subject to societally-conferred notions of value as anyone else. In the 1960s, when Blackfoot culture was dying, some bundle keepers may have seen the bundles as more relevant as source of money for food than as sacred beings. Others may have sold their bundles to museums hoping the museums would keep them through the dark days, holding them safe until Blackfoot culture thrived again.

By the late 1970s, that time had come. Blackfoot people were eager to reclaim their culture. They were ready to use and share the bundles once more. The museums were not. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Blackfoot leaders attempted to repatriate medicine bundles back to their communities from various museums. Some tried to negotiate. Others tried to take bundles by force. In all cases, they ran into walls. While some museum professionals sympathized with the desires of the Blackfoot, they did not feel that those desires outweighed the legal authority and common good argument for keeping the sacred bundles. Museums held a firm line that they were preserving these objects for all humanity, which outweighed the claim of any particular group.

In 1988, the Glenbow Museum wandered into the fray. They mounted an exhibition, “The Spirit Sings: Artistic Traditions of Canada’s First Peoples,” that sparked native public protests. The exhibition included a sacred Mohawk mask which Mohawk representatives requested be removed from display because of its spiritual significance. More broadly, native people criticized the exhibition for presenting their culture without consulting them or inviting them into the process. The museum had broken the cardinal rule of self-determination: nothing about us, without us.

A year later, a new CEO, Bob Janes, came to Glenbow. Bob led a strategic planning process that articulated a deepened commitment to native people as “key players” in the development of projects related to their history and material culture. In 1990, Bob hired a new curator of ethnology, Gerry Conaty. That same year, Glenbow made its first loan of a medicine bundle--the Thunder Medicine Pipe Bundle--to the Blackfoot people.

The loan worked like this: the Weasel Moccasin family kept the Thunder Medicine Pipe Bundle for four months to use during ceremonies. They, they returned the bundle to the museum for four months. This cycle was to continue for as long as both parties agreed. This was a loan, not a transfer of ownership. There was no formal protocol or procedure behind it. It was the beginning of an experiment. It was the beginning of building relationships of mutual trust and respect.

In the 1990s, curator Gerry Conaty spent a great deal of time with Blackfoot people, in their communities. He was humbled and honored to participate as a guest in Blackfoot spiritual ceremonies. The more Gerry got to know leaders in the Blackfoot community, people like Daniel Weasel Moccasin and Jerry Potts and Allan Pard, the more he learned about the role of medicine bundles and other sacred objects in the Blackfoot community.

Gerry started to experience cognitive dissonance and a kind of dual consciousness of the bundles. As a curator, he was overwhelmed and uncomfortable when he saw people dancing with the bundles, using them in ways that his training taught him might damage them. But as a guest of the Blackfoot, he saw the bundles come alive during these ceremonies. He saw people welcome them home like long-lost relatives. He started to see the bundles differently. The Blackfoot reality of the bundles as living sacred beings began to become his reality.

Over time, Gerry and Bob became convinced that full repatriation—not loans—was the right path forward. The bundles had sacred lives that could not be contained. They belonged with the Blackfoot people.

But the conviction to change was just the beginning of the repatriation process. The institution had to change long-held perceptions of what the bundles were, who they belonged to, and how and why they should be used. This was a broad institutional learning effort, what we might call "cultural competency" today. During the 1990s, Glenbow started engaging Blackfoot people as advisors on projects. Gerry hired Blackfoot people wherever he could, as full participants in the curatorial team. Bob, Gerry, and Glenbow staff spent time in Blackfoot communities, learning what was important and relevant to them.

As Blackfoot elders sought to repatriate their bundles from museums, they also had to negotiate amongst themselves to reestablish the relevance and value of the bundles. They were relearning their own ceremonial rituals and the role of medicine bundles within them. They had to develop protocols for how they would adopt, revive, and recirculate the bundles in the community. Even core principles like the communal ownership of the bundles had to be reestablished. This process took just as much reshaping for Blackfoot communities as it did for the institution.

To complicate things further, the artifacts were actually the property of the province of Alberta, not Glenbow. The museum couldn’t repatriate the bundles without government signoff. For years they fought to get government approval. For years, the government resisted. Government officials suggested that the Blackfoot people make replicas of the bundles, so the originals could remain "safe" at the museum. The museum and their Blackfoot partners said no. As Piikani leader Jerry Potts put it: “Well, who is alive now who can put the right spirit into new bundles and make them the way they are supposed to be? Who is there alive who can do that? Some of these bundles are thousands of years old, and they go right back to the story of Creation when Thunder gave us the ceremony. Who is around who can sit there and say they can do that?”

The museum and Blackfoot leaders had to negotiate multiple realities. They had to negotiate on the province’s terms through legal battles and written contracts. They had to negotiate with museum staff about policies around collections ownership and management. They had to negotiate with native families about the use and transfer of the bundles in the community. In each arena, different approaches and styles were required. The people in the middle had to navigate them all.

But they kept building momentum through shared learning and loan projects. By 1998, the Siksika, Kainai, and Piikani had more than thirty sacred objects on loan from the Glenbow Museum. They were still fighting for the province to grant the possibility of full repatriation. Still, even as loans, some bundles had been ceremonially transferred several times throughout native communities, spreading knowledge and extending relationships. Glenbow staff had learned the importance of the bundles to entire communities. Native people were using, and protecting, and sharing the bundles. Even the Glenbow board bought in. The museum had become relevant to the native people on their terms. The native people had become relevant to the museum on theirs. They were more than relevant; they were connected, working together on a project of shared passion and commitment.

In 1999, they put their shared commitment to the test. It became clear that they were not going to succeed at convincing the provincial cultural officials of the value of full repatriation. CEO Bob Janes went to the Glenbow board of trustees and told them about the stalemate. A board member brokered a meeting with the premier of Alberta so that the museum could make the case for repatriation directly. It was risky; they were flagrantly ignoring the chain of provincial command. But the gamble worked. In 2000, the First Nations Sacred Ceremonial Objects Repatriation Act was passed in the province of Alberta. The bundles went home.

At its heart, the story of the Blackfoot repatriation is the story of two communities—that of the Blackfoot and that of Glenbow Museum—becoming deeply relevant to each other. When relevance goes deep, it doesn’t look like relevance anymore. It looks like work. It looks like friendships. It looks like shared meaning. As the museum staff understand more about what mattered to their Blackfoot partners, it came to matter to them, too. Leonard Bastien, then chief of the Piikani First Nation, put it this way: “Because all things possess a soul and can, therefore, communicate with your soul, I am inclined to believe that the souls of the many sacred articles and bundles within the Glenbow Museum touched Robert Janes and Gerry Conaty in a special way, whether they knew it or not. They have been changed in profound ways through their interactions with the Blood and Peigan people and their attendance at ceremonies.”

 That is the power of deep relevance.

If you'd like to weigh in, please leave a comment below. If you are reading this via email and wish to respond, you can join the conversation here.