History of Public Libraries & Questions Cultural Orgs Face Regarding Inclusion

Check out this visual storytelling piece on CityLab about the history of libraries in the US.  As arts and cultural organizations struggle with the question of inclusion of under-represented communities in our spaces and on our boards, the efforts people to which people went to gain access to books may provide some insight into the issue. Especially given that the meaning and value of libraries today is no longer directly tied to books. (In fact, 150+ years ago the role of libraries was already expanding beyond a source of books.)

It is generally acknowledged that Ben Franklin started one of the first libraries in the United States, but it was privately funded and by invitation which excluded white women, blacks and poor people.  According to the graphics in the CityLab piece, this just lead those groups to form their own clubs like the Phoenix Society of NY established to, (I love this phrase), “Establish Mental Feasts” and “Establish Circulating Libraries for the Use of People of Color on Very Moderate Pay.”

Women’s Clubs were established along the same lines, and when they excluded Jewish, black and working class women, those groups created their own clubs.

I think I may have mentioned before that I currently work in a historic theater that has the dubious distinction of possessing one of the best preserved Jim Crow balconies in the country.  A few blocks away from us is a theater established by a black business man to serve the black community due to the lack of access in my building. Reading about a parallel history in libraries is pretty relevant to me.

Before Andrew Carnegie started to endow libraries across the country, many of these library projects were already embracing social issues like literacy, anti-lynching, and suffrage. Bookmobiles were bringing books to rural communities.  Even with Carnegie’s funding and the expansion to public access, according to the graphic, it was women’s clubs that helped drive the construction of libraries to the point where having one was a staple of every community.

Even still, there was a lot of exclusion by race:

As I was reading through the CityLab piece, I saw echos of many of the questions arts and cultural organizations need to face regarding their identity.

For example, at one point the stated purpose of many libraries was to promote “desirable middle class values.” While this isn’t as explicitly stated by many arts organizations these days, it is present quite implicitly.

First Rule Of Arts Club–Talk To Everyone About Arts Club

I came across a study conducted in the UK where the researchers found some benefit to new attendees of arts and cultural events having the opportunity to participate in peer-lead audience exchange conversations.

They were pretty particular about excluding someone with (perceived) expertise from the group as including such a person either led to people deferring to the person’s expertise or feeling too intimidated to contribute to the conversation. The researchers drew comparisons with book clubs, but encouraged arts organizations to facilitate the formation of such groups since people rarely organize themselves. (emphasis from original)

Deborah (DX): “It’s really nice to talk about it afterwards. Rather than just sort of taking it all home with you”.

Bridget (IKG/BCMG): “[…] at the contemporary music thing, it was quite nice to sit down at the end and talk with other people about the experience [agreement] because otherwise you sort of wander away with a couple of inane comments, and sort of forget about it. But sitting down with people is an interesting way of reflecting –” [Doris: “It can add to the experience.”]

This deepening of experience through conversation was also evident in the group discussions themselves, as participants wrestled with their own responses to an event and sought insight and reassurance from others in the group. They emphasised that the particular kind of discussion they had enjoyed in the audience exchange was not the same as the conversations with performers sometimes offered by theatre or concert providers, where Doris (IKG) felt she “would feel a bit intimidated about saying something not terribly deep and meaningful – but this doesn’t intimidate”.

Some of the commentary the researchers recorded was very interesting to learn. I was trying to figure out how an arts organization could go about capturing this data without being there. An obvious answer is to record it if that doesn’t impact what people are willing to say. Otherwise, asking someone to take notes. Among the comments the researchers recorded were ones about the marketing materials organizations were putting out.

Even while the new audience members struggled to find a vocabulary to talk about their response to a concert, some felt that the language being used by the arts organisation also failed to capture their experience, with too much of an emphasis on analysis and not enough on the emotional impact of the music:

Bryony (E360A): “For me that description of tonight doesn’t make it sound very exciting – it makes it sound a bit rubbish!” [laughs].

Adam (E360A): “Especially the Martinů one, like that was my favourite one, and it says it ‘exhibits the flute to great effect’ [laughter] but to me it was the violin that was really interesting, and the variations in the music”.

These sort of discussions can be helpful for new attendees because they can validate the reactions they have. Some of the discussions revolved around feelings of guilt about being bored or having one’s mind wander. Someone else in the group piped in defending her “’right to daydream’, expressing the view that if the music encouraged her into personal thoughts and memories, this was in itself a response to the performance and not one for which she should feel apologetic.”

If The Metric Is Valued, Someone Is Probably Trying To Game The System

Okay, so I promise I am not seeking out articles that discuss the problems with depending on quantitative metrics to determine effectiveness and value. They just keep falling into my lap. This one is via Dan Pink and is kinda fun to read thanks to some animations.

The piece in The Hustle has us follow the “career” of  Otis has he moves from being a cashier to sales to online advertising to programming to surgery in order to illustrate how the use of quotas and efficiency metrics permeates every industry and every profession to incentivize gaming the system in order to generate the best appearance.

But Otis came to learn that metrics weren’t inherently bad — his bosses had just failed to grasp two important economic principles:

  • Goodhart’s Law: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure,” and
  • Campbell’s Law: The more a metric is used, the more likely it is to “corrupt the process it is intended to monitor.”

He realized that when his performance was measured with a specific metric, he optimized everything to hit it, regardless of the consequences that arose. As a visiting professor at the London School of Economics told him, improper targets could:

  • Encourage “gaming” the system (e.g., bagging free groceries)
  • Incentivize the wrong aspects of work (e.g., writing trivial code)
  • Erode morale (e.g., writing clickbait)
  • Harm customers (e.g., turning away critical surgery patients)

And so, Otis decided to start his own company — a company where metrics would serve their true purpose: To motivate and align. Efficiency, Otis finally realized, isn’t just output; it is the value of what is produced.

If you think about the measures being applied to non-profit arts and cultural organizations like overhead ratio, economic impact, test scores, etc and pay attention to what organizations are doing in order to meet those metrics, you will probably start to see behaviors that conform to those listed above.

It could manifest as massaging numbers in financials and research; chasing funding that doesn’t align with mission and strains capacity; superficial efforts that check desired boxes; pursuit of a narrow segment of community rather than a focus on broader inclusion. I am sure readers can think of many examples from their own experiences.

Still More Engaging Perspectives on Museum Collections

In the last six months it seems like I have been coming across a lot of stories about how museums tours are presenting alternative contexts for collections. Back in May I was writing about Museum Hack which is providing tours through a somewhat pop culture lens.

Since then I have come across a number of stories about efforts in Philadelphia Museums to provide tours from a number of different perspectives, including those who have lived and played around the ruins of ancient civilizations.

Last week I saw a story in the NY Times about a pilot program University of Cambridge has launched that to provide an LGBTQ+ perspective on their collections. The university recruited Dan Vo who had already established himself as a figure in alternative museum tours to help them develop their series.

His Polar Museum tour highlighted artfully carved whale teeth known as scrimshaw — a way of occupying male whalers so that they didn’t have sex with each other, Mr. Vo said — and items from indigenous communities that showed how fluid gender roles were in some Arctic populations.

Tours like these are important for the future of museums, Mr. Vo said in an interview later. “It makes them relevant,” he said, “and people want to see themselves reflected in collections.”

The article quotes Alistair Brown, policy officer at the Museums Association who says museums

“are looking at radical ways of reappraising their collections,” he said in a telephone interview. “They’re either inviting critical and diverse voices into the museum, or at least welcoming their presence if uninvited.”

Some of the tours aren’t as welcome as others. The NY Times also highlighted Uncomfortable Art tours given by Alice Procter which highlight the imperialism and colonialism underlying museum acquisitions. She has received death threats because promotional images on her website label Queen Elizabeth I as a slaver and Queen Victoria as a thief. The British Museum created a tour series of their own in response to Procter’s which highlights the specific provenance of objects in their collection.

Examples like these (including the ones I cited in earlier posts) can provide a real sense of the potential inherent in museum collections and the type of things people are curious to know.  It also highlights the type of details arts organizations should know about their offerings whether it is museum objects or works being performed.

It has only just started to occur to me that this is a result of the development of Professional-Amateurs predicted 15 years ago and has become something that can both challenge and threaten arts organizations and greatly enhance the work they do.

Send this to a friend