Women share #MuseumMeToo stories in wake of Erie Art Museum scandal
Geraldine Kendall Adams, 23.01.2020
Sexual impropriety in sector highlighted as US museum director is forced out over allegations
The 2017 #MeToo movement, which was ignited by the sexual assault and rape allegations against Hollywood film mogul Harvey Weinstein, was a watershed moment for many industries, as thousands of mainly female employees around the world shared traumatic stories of harassment and abuse at the hands of men in more powerful positions.
The #MeToo hashtag resurfaced this month in the wake of Joshua Helmer’s departure as director of the Erie Art Museum in the US, where he was forced out after the New York Times exposed his history of allegedly inappropriate behaviour towards female staff and interns.
The newspaper detailed how 31-year-old Helmer made advances to at least nine younger women in subordinate positions while at his previous role as assistant director of interpretation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, implying to some that he could make or break their careers. Two women who dated Helmer told how he would berate them at work in view of other employees; he allegedly told one woman that she only “got the job because we’re dating”.
Helmer left that role in 2018 in circumstances that have not been disclosed, and went on to become one of the youngest museum directors in the US when he landed the top job at Erie Art Museum in Pennsylvania. Last week, in response to the fallout from the New York Times piece, the museum’s board announced that he was no longer employed there.
The Philadephia Museum of Art has come under heavy criticism over its handling of the allegations, with the city’s mayor putting pressure on it to review its harassment policies. The museum’s CEO and director Timothy Rub apologised to staff at a town hall meeting this week, saying: “It is my firm commitment to do all that is necessary to address our issues head on, to ensure that this is a workplace in which people feel secure and fully supported.”
In response to these events, women in the US have been sharing their experiences of sexual impropriety in the museum sector under the hashtag #MuseumMeToo, detailing behaviour by fellow staff, visitors and donors ranging from inappropriate comments to serious sexual assault. As in the case of Weinstein, they describe how complaints against powerful men are frequently brushed aside or covered up, and employees often fear retaliation for speaking out.
Two hundred current and former staff at the Philadelphia Museum of Art have signed a statement in solidarity with the women who came forward, saying: “We acknowledge that this is not an isolated incident unique to one institution but endemic in the field. Structural change is required to ensure that abusers aren't enabled, employees feel safe reporting abuse, and no one fears retaliation for coming forward.”
The problem isn’t confined to US museums. Although cultural heritage institutions in the UK are funded and structured differently, similar imbalances in power can be found across the sector here, making it a fertile ground for harassment and abuse.
A session at the Museums Association's annual conference in Brighton last year looked at museum ethics in the #MeToo era
The Museums Association (MA) recently conducted a questionnaire on bullying in the museum sector that attracted more than 500 responses. The survey encompassed many types of bullying behaviour but preliminary data has shown that bullying in the sector is often related to sex, says Tamsin Russell, the association’s professional development officer.
Although the full results have not yet been released, the data has found that more than 45% of respondents said they had experienced bullying as a result of being in a protected category, and of this figure, more than 50% said they had been targeted for being female. One respondent wrote: “It doesn’t help if you are young and female.”
Following on from the research, a report with recommendations for action will be published by the MA in spring 2020.
Russell says: “For those individuals that have experienced #MuseumMeToo it is important to seek advice and guidance, speak to your line manager, your HR department, your trade union. Most importantly seek support specifically for your health, safety and wellbeing."
The onus is on employers to create a safe workplace for everyone. Last week, the Equality and Human Rights Commission published new technical guidance for UK employers on dealing with sexual harassment and harassment at work.
“For organisations looking to create a harassment-free culture, the guidance from the Equality and Human Rights Commission is a good starting point,” says Russell.