A Template Letter to Your Museum Director about the Museum Crisis

Image of a man kneeling in front of a bicycle. The bicycle has a sign that says "Abolish Capitalism"
This image is not of the author, allegedly. Though the author agrees with the sentiment.

*Note: This Template was allegedly written by someone who works in a museum that is part of a larger museum system, as such the terminology “museum system” refers to the entire institution and “museum unit” refers to the direct museum the person works at – allegedly*

Dear [Interim] [Director Name], 

I’m writing to you today to voice concerns I have about the health of the [museum] as an institution and how the [museum, board, leadership] has handled the ongoing crisis of toxic, colonialist, and racist structures of the workplace at our institution.

During my time at the museum I was lucky to have a good supervisor in the form of [my former boss] and a great boss above that in the form of [the director of my department], however my total experience has been uncomfortable and toxic.

First, I would like to say I have not been impressed with how the museum has handled the concerns of former staff in the open letter that was filed recently. Regardless of any legal issues or confidentiality with individual former employees, the spirit of that letter, that the museum has racist/colonialist components and disparate outcomes for BIPOC staff rings true to me. I am very active in the museum social justice movement and have never been afraid to speak up and seek equity and justice for others as much as I can. I hope that you respect my intent.

Since the start of the pandemic our wider museum system has done a great job talking about the pandemic and making workers feel safe, but within our museum unit I feel like there is no meaningful communication about what the status of addressing abusive individuals and managers, work practices, accountability, transparency and hiring plans are. Whenever we inquire it is always some fresh excuse, rather than concrete action or details.

When we reached out to talk to you about these issues we’ve heard nothing from you. It has been two weeks. I understand you have been tasked with a Herculean endeavor and I respect and admire that.

As one of the youngest non-contractor employees at the museum unit (which is absurd to me since I’m 29) and also one of the newest I am thankful to have me this job opportunity, but also not happy with the lack of guidance or a generally friendly and communicative work culture that I’ve encountered even prior to the pandemic.

I work hard, I care a lot about museums, so much so that I stick my neck out in moments like this where better professional sense says to keep your head down. I do museum activism in my spare time, I speak at conferences and volunteer. I try to support the next wave of museum professionals as best I can, particularly trying to inject diversity into the ranks of the field. I stand up directly to people who are racist, sexist, ableist, and classist all the time.

We’re lying to ourselves though if we think hiring more diverse staff will solve the problems this museum unit and the museum system itself faces. The bigger issue we must address first is a culture of always asking for more, always make the numbers on the reports bigger, and a bureaucracy that I’ve found frequently obtuse and borderline unprofessional.

Often in the museum system I feel like I don’t belong here, between the fact that security always treats me like a random person / constant rudeness, or the dystopian courses about safety, purchasing, or auditing that make everyone feel like a criminal in waiting, the formal memos, and the entrenched hierarchy where so much status is given to high level people they feel so distant from the problems us lower level workers face. It is also unacceptable that staff who make double what I do and own nice houses in the suburbs feel comfortable to shit talk the neighborhoods my friends and I have given everything to. I’m active in DC local politics and have stood in solidarity with rent strikers, anti-police demonstrations, given testimony against wealthy homeowners opposing development and more. The fact anyone would shit talk the people of my neighborhood publicly and through veiled racist, pro-police language is beyond the pale.

At my last job, from the time I started there, by the time I left it felt like a family, a family with problems absolutely, but there was a sense of being on the same team and doing our best to help our community. I have never felt like that here. Here everyone feels out for themselves, trying to snag the next promotion or big grant and I applaud people being mercenary under capitalism since we all have to make rent or pay a mortgage, but I don’t know it just feels different. And yes, I’m aware the grass is always greener, hindsight is 20/20 or whatever adage you wanna use here.

I’ve told various colleagues in the field that I am weighing leaving and I’ll make no secret of it to you. We face a truly unstable time in America, my friends and comrades have been gassed and beaten by the police on a regular basis. Most of my friends in museums have been laid off or furloughed. Many of us who hold jobs where we should feel like we “made it” still have to live financially difficult lives due to runaway housing costs, student loan debt, and fears about healthcare/future. If professionals like me are struggling, then God help the people worse off than me, particularly people who face far greater challenges and oppression than I ever will. We must stand with them, listen to them, weaponize ourselves to aid them, however they want to be aided. We must end a culture of patriarchy and colonialism and capitalism in museums, full stop.

I hope you understand why people like me feel the need for things to not just change *eventually* but to change, yesterday. We’re not just advocating for reform, we’re upset, we’re mad, we’re tired of putting up with a society that grinds individuals down into husks. We refuse to end up dead inside, to die thousands of small deaths as David Foster Wallace said. We refuse to toil until retirement, because we do not have that luxury, there will be no comfortable retirement for us accepting a pittance and waiting to die alone in a nursing home like my grandmother did. Things are different now. This is not the 1960s or the 1930s or whenever again. The world faces literal collapse of the climate and every battle against injustice of all types is part of that overall struggle.

Last night Senator Ed Markey won his primary and he gave a speech that gave me the motivation to write this, gave me courage and energy to make it through this year, to wake up another day and do it all over again.

“Tonight’s victory is a tribute to young people and their vision,
They will save us if we trust them, we must look to them,
Listen to them, we must follow these young people, they want justice in our country and our world.

Growing up my father told me, ‘don’t beg for your rights, you organize, and take them.
So to the young people fighting in this movement, here is my charge to you:

March in the streets, protest, run for school committee, or city council, or the state legislature and win. But don’t just challenge the status quo, dismantle it. Take things over.

When they say slow down go faster
When they say not now, start that day
When they say not that way, redraw the map
When they say you’re too young, show up with your friends

Every reason the critics or cynics offer to give up and give in is proof positive you should push forward, and hard.

The time to be timid is past,
The age of incrementalism is over.

Now is our moment to think big, to build big, to be big, this is what this moment is about.
We know our work is not done, tomorrow, we hit the streets.”

Thank you,