In this Skip the Queue podcast episode I speak with James Haddan, Senior Director of Development & External Communications at the Museum of Us in San Diego.
James Haddan has been a resident of San Diego since 1998, and has worked in the museum field for almost two decades. As the Senior Director of Development and External Communications at the Museum of Us (formerly the San Diego Museum of Man), he is responsible for building a community of support for the institution.
Recently, he and Museum CEO, Micah Parzen, led the effort to publicly launch the Museum’s new name, which embraces a more equitable and accessible identity dedicated to anti-racism and decolonizing work. Mr. Haddan holds both a Bachelor of Environmental Design and Master of Arts in Anthropology from Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas. His graduate work was associated with the Institute of Nautical Archaeology and included underwater archaeology fieldwork at the 17th-century port city of Port Royal, Jamaica.
“The colonial pathways policy. What it does is it says that we will be consulting with descendant communities to see what materials that we should continue to hold. So, if materials came into our holdings through any kind of colonial path, we will return those to the descendant communities. And that’s a big deal in the museum world.”
What will you learn from this podcast?
- The multifaceted process of decolonization
- The process of changing the museum’s 40-year-old name
- Why UK bacon rolls are the best in the world
You can also read the full transcript below.
Your host, Kelly Molson
Our guest, James Haddan
Kelly Molson: James, it is absolutely lovely to have you on the podcast today. Thank you for joining me.
James Haddan: Well, thank you, Kelly, for having me. I’m really looking forward to our chat.
Kelly Molson: So am I. But first, icebreaker questions, as always. James, I know that you’re a regular listener to the podcast, so you kind of know what’s in store for you. What talent would you most like to grow and develop?
James Haddan: I would really like to improve my ability with languages. That’s something that I’ve tried over time and have not been really very good at keeping up and someday, in retirement, I’d love to live abroad, and so I really feel like I don’t want to be one of those Americans living in a country that refuses to speak any other language but English. And so, I’d like to work on that.
Kelly Molson: Yeah. I always say.. Yeah. It’s that Brit abroad. For us, I always call it that Brit abroad thing where you go, okay, well, I’m going to go and retire to Spain, but I’m never going to learn a single word of Spanish. I’m just going to speak English the whole time there, so yeah. It’s not the right thing to do. What language? What have you tried, or what would you like to learn?
James Haddan: So, I did kind of that requisite year or two of high school French in the United States, which I didn’t really learn much of anything. In college, I studied German, and in my graduate program, we actually were required to be able to translate in a foreign language. So, I actually, for a period of time, could read German. It wasn’t a conversational knowledge of the language, but I could translate it. The German has left me, basically.
So what I’ve been working on now, and I just started it in the pandemic, and please don’t ask me to show it off because I’m not ready for that. I’m trying to learn some Portuguese. I really love Portugal. But Portuguese, the pronunciation is really difficult for me. I don’t find it natural at all.
Kelly Molson: Okay. It’s interesting you mention German, actually, because we did French and German at school. And you could choose which one you went on and did for your GCSEs. And I chose German because it was the easier language because it was quite masculine.
James Haddan: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Kelly Molson: It felt more similar to the British language.
James Haddan: Yes.
Kelly Molson: And so I found it easier to say. And that’s why I went with German. But it has left me as well. I’ve been on the Duolingo app. I started doing Duolingo and learning in Spanish in lockdown. And I’ve been really consistent, so I’ve done it every day. I think I’m on a 190 day streak at the moment.
James Haddan: I am on 390 of a streak of Portuguese.
Kelly Molson: Whoa. We should hook up on there. I’ll find you.
James Haddan: I have been amazed at myself, but it does make it easy. It’s not a long period of time, and I do feel like it’s okay for me to pick it up for 10 minutes and it’s-
Kelly Molson: Yeah. I love that. Oh good. Okay. Well, I will find you on there and we’ll hook up and we’ll spur each other on to learn our languages. Okay, next one. What’s the worst movie that you’ve ever watched?
James Haddan: I will say, it’s the worst in some ways, but I love it. It’s one of those movies that I love but it… It’s that Flash Gordon that was done in the eighties, I think.
Kelly Molson: Film.
James Haddan: And I really love the movie, but it was.
Kelly Molson: It’s not aged well.
James Haddan: Yeah. But I loved it. But I kind of loved hated it, yeah.
Kelly Molson: So, that’s one of those movies, it’s so bad it’s good.
James Haddan: Yes.
Kelly Molson: Yeah. I love Flash Gordon. I think that’s a great film. I might, I need to watch that now. Okay. Next one. If you could be in the Guinness World of Records, what record-breaking feat would you attempt?
James Haddan: Oh. That’s really a tough one. It would have to do with travel. I think it would be places visited or something… I know that’s really kind of tough to do, but I’m really obsessed with travel and so, it would be something having to do with travel.
Kelly Molson: All right. That’s cool. I was thinking of something eating for me.
James Haddan: Well, and that was my kind of backup one, that I almost said, was around pasta. Because, but then I think of, oh, the process of eating it for those eating challenges always seems so awful, and it would probably make me not ever want to eat pasta again. And so, that’s why I switched over, but I also had an initial urge to choose eating pasta, or some kind of Italian food.
Kelly Molson: A couple of years ago, my agency, Rubber Cheese, we did a big year-long charity fundraiser, and one of the challenges that we did was to try and break the world record for eating a can of cheddar cheese Pringles in the fastest amount of time. And we did break the world record for that. Not myself, personally, I was dreadful at it, but I have never eaten a cheese Pringle ever since. Ruined cheese Pringles for me for life, so. All right, James. What is your unpopular opinion?
James Haddan: So, my unpopular opinion, which will be more unpopular in the United States probably than in the UK is that our crispy bacon is an abomination. Our idea of taking streaky bacon and essentially nuking it until it’s just a piece of ash is horrible. I just don’t understand why we insist on doing that to bacon. It seems like such a bad thing to do for lovely pigs who gave their lives for this delicious meat and we just shouldn’t do that to bacon.
Kelly Molson: I’m with you. I don’t understand that. The whole making it, it shouldn’t be rock hard, should it?
James Haddan: Yeah.
Kelly Molson: That’s not nice.
James Haddan: Yeah. It shouldn’t shatter when you go in to bite it. And so I find when I’m in England, I have a much better experience with bacon because they don’t assume that I want it… Well, sometimes because if they hear me speak and know I’m American, assume that I want it that way, but. It’s like no, just prepare it the way you would normally prepare it.
Kelly Molson: All right. Come to the UK, it’s all about the good bacon.
James Haddan: Yes.
Kelly Molson: Selling the UK well.
James Haddan: A bacon sandwich in the Uk is a wonderful thing.
Kelly Molson: Completely agree with you on that one, James. Right. Let’s get into the good stuff.
James Haddan: Okay.
Kelly Molson: So, James, you are, currently, Senior Director of Development and External Communications at the Museum of US in San Diego. Tell us a little bit about your career. How did you get to that point?
James Haddan: So, it’s been a long and varied route. And so I’ll try to do the CliffsNotes version of it. But I kind of wanted to start off by saying I was one of those students growing up that loved so many different things to study. I loved architecture, I loved art, I loved the built environment, I loved archaeology. And so I was one of those students, I couldn’t quite figure out what I wanted to do when I went to college, but I felt like I needed to make a decision and I started right away with aerospace engineering and immediately in the first week or two of that, said, no, this isn’t going to be a good idea. Changed my major very quickly to architecture.
And so, I did a bachelor’s degree in… I went to Texas A&M and their program was a four-year undergraduate degree called environmental design, which then moved to a master’s degree in architecture. And, so I did and completed the four years Bachelor of Environmental Design degree and I really loved that degree. But at the end of it, I realized that I would be a very mediocre architect and the world didn’t need another mediocre architect. And so I was at a crossroads, I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t very employable with that degree and so, like many people will do, oh, I’ll just get a master’s degree.
And I really loved archaeology. And so I decided I would get a Master’s degree in Anthropology, specialisation in Archeology. Again, I’m sure my parents and family were like, that’s not a great decision in the job field. And so, why are you doing that? But I followed my heart and I was glad that I did that and in my anthropology program, my archaeology program, I worked with the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M, which is very famous, and did my fieldwork in Port Royal, Jamaica, which is a 17th century English port city that sank into what is now Kingston Harbour. And our program had been excavating there for about 10 years. So, really, very interesting work that I really loved doing. But I also, in that process, decided that a PhD and an academic life for me in archaeology or anthropology also wasn’t really meant for me.
And while I was doing my graduate work, I was invited to be a graduate assistant at an art gallery on campus. And the curator of the gallery wanted a graduate assistant who had really good research skills and also had good design skills. And he said “I would love an architecture student, but they just don’t have time, and especially in their master’s program, to work away from the studio. And I would love an anthropology student because they’re really great at research, but they don’t have any design background.” So he kind of reached out to both departments. Well, both departments knew me and said oh, we have the unicorn for you.
Kelly Molson: The perfect fit.
James Haddan: The perfect fit. And so, I went over and I met with him and he was delighted and I started and that’s where I started to realise that a role for myself in a museum was possible. That I had some really good skills that would work in the field. So that kind of lit the fire for me with the professional idea that I could work in museums. So, when I finished graduate school, I had moved to Phoenix to be with my partner, who had finished his graduate program a little earlier and already had a job. He was an engineer. He had a sensible job.
And we moved to Phoenix and I was hired by the Arizona Historical Society to head an exhibits project that they were doing. They were opening a new museum. And I worked for them for about five and a half years and it was a really invaluable experience. I was very young and I didn’t realize at the time the kind of amount of responsibility I was given. But people had just given me a lot to do and project manage and deal with grants and all kinds of things. Really, really gave me a great foundation to work in the museum field. Great job.
I didn’t really want to spend the rest of my life in Phoenix. And I had occasionally come to San Diego on holiday as many people in Phoenix do. It’s hot in the desert and you drive six hours and you’re by the seaside, and it’s a very Mediterranean lovely climate. So I wanted to move to San Diego. So I just quit my job. I moved to San Diego. My partner, by that time, was my ex-partner. He had a spare room and he very graciously said you can stay with me rent-free. And so I loaded up, I moved to San Diego, and I got a job at the San Diego Natural History Museum as their Director of Membership.
James Haddan: There’s a long story about that, but I won’t bore you about that. So, I was hired there and that was my first kind of work in the development realm. And my boss there, whose name was Anne Laden, and she was an amazing fundraiser and an amazing mentor. And she taught me so much. And I was there about four years and just kind of soaked in everything that she was doing. She was running this 30 million dollar capital campaign to build a new wing, and I just kind of soaked all of that up.
I took a little detour after that. I decided I wanted to try something outside the nonprofit realm. I worked in healthcare for nine years, which taught me that I really wanted to be back in museums. And when I made that decision, the very day that I made the decision that I wanted to get back into the museum field, I started looking online for jobs. I looked at, what then was the San Diego Museum of Man, which is an anthropology museum, and that was my field of graduate study. And I had been to the museum but the kind of the old version of the museum wasn’t very exciting for me. But I thought well, I’ll see if they have a job.
Well, they had a development manager job. And so I thought, I’ll give it a try. I sent in my materials, and they called me right away and interviewed me. And in that studying up for the interview process, getting to know the museum actually before my interview, I realised that the museum was in a whole new direction from what it was. So suddenly, I was really excited and thought, oh, this will be a really wonderful place to work and I hope I get this job. And I got the job. And then, I’ve been at the museum since 2013, and my role has grown over time. And so, now I’m heading the department that I first started in.
Kelly Molson: I love hearing how people’s careers are so squiggly.
James Haddan: Yes.
Kelly Molson: There’s a great podcast in the UK called Squiggly Careers. I think it’s Helen Tupper that is the host of it. And it is fabulous. And it is all about these kinds of weird little directions that we take, that brings us to the perfect place.
James Haddan: Yes.
Kelly Molson: Now, this is what I want to talk about. So, you mentioned earlier that the museum was known as the San Diego Museum of Man. And I think that was, it had been named that for over 40 years-
James Haddan: Yes.
Kelly Molson: So it’s a really long time. But now it’s called the Museum of Us. What is it that prompted that change and how has this come about, that the museum has changed? Because there’s quite a big story to this that I want to delve a little bit deeper into.
James Haddan: Sure. So it’s really interesting. We’ve done a bit of digging on the history of the name. First of all, the museum was founded in 1915 for the California Panama Exposition. We’re located in Balboa Park, which was built for the Exposition. Its original name was not San Diego Museum of Man. It was a very kind of bland name, like California, San Diego Museum Association, or… I’m drawing a bit of a blank on that actually now. But in the forties, it became the Museum of Man and then, later on, San Diego was added to it too. So, it had that name for quite a bit of time and was very, that name, when you came to the museum, it was one of those anthropology museums that you expect to see of that time period. It was about ancient civilisations. Come see the exhibit on the Maya, come see an exhibit on ancient Egypt.
Over time, and especially kind of beginning in the seventies, but you see it also in the eighties, there started to be a lot of kind of rumbling in the community about the name. And really, a lot of this was tied to kind of the Equal Right Amendment. Things that were going on at the same time in the United States about language and how our language tends to be very patriarchal and the use of man in that sense of it being humanity. It’s really an old use of the word, which really wasn’t used anymore in everyday speech. Academics might use it, but in everyday speech, it wasn’t.
And so, really in the late eighties, early nineties, there was even kind of petition drives that were submitted to the museum and said, “Please consider changing your name. We don’t feel welcome with that name.
Kelly Molson: Right.
James Haddan: It sounds very patriarchal name, a very sexist name, and so please change it.” And there were… Actually, the board considered it. At that time, there was a formal kind of membership that had to review those kinds of things. I think there was a vote that said, no, we’re not going to change our name. But really, beginning in the nineties, there was a lot of talk about changing our name. And so that’s when it really started.
And so, in the last 10 years, when we really began changing what we do as a museum, which I think we’ll probably talk about in a bit, we also really realised that that old name, the San Diego Museum of Man, didn’t fit with what work the museum was doing now. There was really a brand disconnect.
Kelly Molson: Okay. Cool. So, one of the things I want to talk about today, and I think it’s a really interesting subject, but it’s also quite a challenging subject to talk about and discuss about what, the changes that you’ve made. But it’s about the decolonisation initiatives that you’ve run. Can you tell us when that started and what you’ve done to kind of facilitate that happening?
James Haddan: Sure. Well, it’s a very long process and it will be an ongoing process for decades. I mean, you don’t decolonise a 100 plus year institution, and museums are, in many ways, deeply colonial structures, as institutions. So you just don’t magically undo that. But I always look at, a turning point really for me in decolonising work was, we were talking about it, as I said, I’ve been here since 2013, and we were talking about it when I started. And I’m sure even before then.
Our director came in 10 years ago, Micah Parzen. And so this has been an interest of his for a long time. But really in 2017, we submitted a grant request to IMLS, which is the Institute of Museum and Library Services in the United States. It’s a government agency. And we submitted a very large grant to formally start decolonizing practices at the museum. So $300,000 plus grant, and we were awarded it. The review committee was really thrilled to see the museum really want to tackle this in a formal kind of way. And it was essentially a pilot project for us to start working with the Kumeyaay community.
And the museum and San Diego, we’re all located on Kumeyaay land. This whole land that was settled by Spanish and American settlers was the home of the Kumeyaay and continues to be the home of the Kumeyaay. And so there is a long history there. The cultural materials that we have, much of them are Kumeyaay materials. And so this grant really started that process for us to start building a relationship with the Kumeyaay community about the materials that we hold and to start really consulting with them in ways.
James Haddan: And I’ll talk, I’ll really point to two pieces of really policy decisions that we made about the same time or as this process had gone. The first one was a policy on human remains, where the board formally decided that we would not exhibit human remains without the consent of descendant communities. So we pulled any human remains that we had on display. And so that was one of the first steps.
The second step, which is even a bigger step, is called the colonial pathways policy. And what that, in a nutshell, it’s a long policy, but what it does is it says that we will be consulting with descendant communities to see what materials that we should continue to hold. So, if materials came into our holdings through any kind of colonial path, we will return those to the descendant communities. And that’s a big deal in the museum world.
And so, those were some of the two key kinds of pieces of work. Now, since that time, the decolonizing efforts have expanded in every department, including my development department. We are finding ways to move forward in ways that embrace a decolonial paradigm to the work that we are doing. So, it’s an ongoing process, but I really look to that IMLS grant as one of the first steps and then those two policy decisions that our board, and I can’t kind of give enough kudos to our board for really taking a lead on that. And so, a lot of work had to be done building a board that was ready to make those kinds of decisions.
Kelly Molson: How did you go about engaging with the community to do this? Because it’s fabulous that those steps were taken. Absolutely the right thing to do. How do you then put that into practice? How do you engage with the community to understand what they want you to do?
James Haddan: That’s a great question. There are a lot of different layers to that. So, one of the key parts of that is to start having Indigenous and Native American people in the decision making positions on your staff. And so, for example, we have a Director of Decolonizing Initiatives, whose name is Brandie MacDonald and she’s Choctaw and Chickasaw, and she’s part of the four-member kind of senior executive team of the museum. So she is right in there with all the keys decisions being made at the museum.
There’s also a past history of the museum with the Kumeyaay community that wasn’t a good one. I mean, the Kumeyaay community looked at the museum, rightly so, as an organisation that had their cultural patrimony and shouldn’t have it and displayed it in ways that they weren’t happy about. So, we needed to start truth-telling about that in the exhibits that we have and we also needed to apologise for that.
And so our senior, our director, our deputy director, really our CEO and our Deputy Director went and have apologised for what we have done in the past and have really committed to changing those practices, but not surprisingly, those kinds of things are looked upon with a great deal of scepticism. So, it takes action to start building trust. And so, we’re still building trust, but we’ve started. And we’re making progress.
Kelly Molson: That’s wonderful. And like you say, it’s not a quick fix, is it? It’s something that going to progress and change over time. How granular do you look at those decisions that you’re making now? In terms of, for instance, if there’s a new exhibit that you’d like to showcase, do you consult with the community before that happens to make sure that they’re happy for you to exhibit those artefacts? How detailed do you go?
James Haddan: So that’s really interesting because we’ve done a couple kind of pilots and tests, some kind of small work. For example, with our existing Kumeyaay exhibit, we were partially closed because of a seismic retrofit to our California tower, which is a very famous icon, and during that time, we had to close our Kumeyaay exhibit. And so we thought, this is a perfect time to kind of consult with the Kumeyaay community, which we were already doing, and at least ask what shouldn’t be on display. What should we at least take off of display that you don’t want us to? So, that gave us kind of the first taste of what do we do, and at least make this exhibit that is decades old less problematic. It still needs to change.
But also during that process, and during this first IMLS grant, we were really working with the Kumeyaay and finding out, well, what did they want us to do next? What do they see this museum helping kind of elevate their voice? And they said you need a new Kumeyaay exhibit. You are not talking about us in the way that we want to be presented to the world, and not surprisingly, you don’t know anything about us. You are white scholars who aren’t Kumeyaay.
And so, we just, in this last year, received a second grant from IMLS to actually work on the new Kumeyaay exhibit. And so we’re really going to be trying to figure that out because it’s that whole process because we want it to be a community-driven exhibit. We want the Kumeyaay community to tell us how their story should be told and to be a part of that. And not just consulting occasionally, but to be with it every step of the way. What’s on display, what’s on the design, where does it go in the exhibit, in the museum, all of those kinds of things.
And so, when I say our decolonising work is a process, it’s a process. And sometimes it’s messy and we make mistakes. But we’re trying to learn how to do it correctly. And so we’re still in that process.
Kelly Molson: And what’s the reaction been from the Kumeyaay community? And then also, other communities that would visit the museum. How have people responded to the changes that you’ve made?
James Haddan: So, I don’t know and I wouldn’t want to speak for the Kumeyaay on what their impression is of what our work is. From what I see with the partnerships that we’ve been building through our IMLS work, there’s also NAGPRA work, which is another government type of work about the repatriation of ancestors and associated grave goods. It feels like trust is building and so I think that that means that, or is an indicator that there is some happiness about the work that’s going. But I don’t want to speak for them in any way.
I will give one example that I feel shows, it really kind of impacted staff quite a bit. So, we had a visitor to the museum from the Maasai community, an ambassador from the Maasai community, and he was visiting and there was contact between our cultural resources staff and he wanted to come to see what we might have from his community. And so he can in and our staff pulled everything that we, as far as we knew, were Maasai materials.
And the first question that we asked him was, should we have these? Should we even have these and should we be stewarding these for your community? And he said, “Yes, it’s fine for you to have these. There’s nothing that you have in your holdings here that you shouldn’t have. But what you should be doing is caring for them differently.”
We use this very western, European sort of approach to stewarding materials. And so we wrap things in acid-free materials or sometimes different kinds of plastics, and I’m probably using the wrong terms, I’m not a conservator. But he said… And there was specifically a spear that he was looking at. And he said, “You really need to be rubbing this with lamb’s fat, for example. And it’s dead the way you’re taking care of it. It can’t live this way.”
And so, we started following the cultural care practices that he asked for us to do. And it’s amazing how that spear changed. Suddenly, it shines in a different way. And it does feel like it’s alive again. And so, from those kinds of reactions, it feels like we’re on the right track and that we’re doing the right thing morally.
Kelly Molson: There’s so many layers to that, isn’t there?
James Haddan: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Kelly Molson: When you start to engage with the community where these items have come from. You would never have known that at all about that artefact.
James Haddan: Yeah.
Kelly Molson: You would never, you wouldn’t have read about that anywhere unless that man had told you about it.
James Haddan: Yes.
Kelly Molson: It’s fascinating.
James Haddan: And then it also means that I think that if we at some point in time, put that item on display, then also we have a contact who we can talk to and say, how should it be displayed? What story should we tell about this item? And then we can also feel good about it being on display and not feel like we are doing harm or causing trauma to a community by putting it on display.
Kelly Molson: So how does this, if we just take a step back and go back to the name change, how have those things run in parallel with each other because they are intertwined, aren’t they?
James Haddan: They are very much intertwined. And I think we started kind of again, bringing up this idea of a name change two years, in 2018, we actually hired a firm to help us kind of start navigating the process around a name change. To have us kind of start testing names and all of those kinds of activities. We wanted to engage stakeholders with a name and no one was kind of sure what a name should, nobody had any name that just popped to their minds that seemed like a good one.
But we knew we wanted to change our name. Also in those discussions, it was interesting because we were kind of told, don’t change your name though, until your name, your name or your brand, until the experience in the museum is much different. You don’t want there to be a disconnect between having a new name and then the visitor experience be very much different, not be very much different.
And so in the back of our minds, we kept thinking, okay, well, at some point, we want to do this multimillion-dollar capital campaign and completely reimagine the visitor experience to the museum. And we had engaged this firm to help us start planning for that and had some really exciting plans around that. We still do. But it will cost a lot of money to make happen and that kind of capital campaign will take some years. We’re not quite ready to do that yet.
James Haddan: And so when we were thinking about changing our name, we kept thinking, okay, well, we’ve now gone out to the communities starting in 2018 saying we want to change our name but we’re not quite ready to have a whole new visitor experience. How are we going to time this? This is really, this is hard to do and we, by that point in time, we had it kind of narrowed down to three names that we were thinking about. And then, the pandemic happened.
Be honest, was part of the thing and I think, like many institutions, we started looking at ourselves and saying, how do we come out of this as a better version of ourselves? What can we learn from this time to make ourselves better? And we did a lot of self-examination and we realized that as an institution, we were already so much different than what we were 10 years ago, we were embracing and really doing all this decolonizing work. We have an exhibit called Race: Are We So Different? where we really tackle that whole idea about systemic racism and white privilege and all of those kinds of things. And that had become the centre point of our education programs.
And so we’re doing all this antiracism work. We were doing this decolonizing work. We were doing much more work in the social justice sphere. And we were doing, in the kind of traditional collecting of artefacts and showing artefacts from ancient civilizations. And that old name is associated with those old activities.
Kelly Molson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
James Haddan: And we really realised that the old name didn’t match what we were doing now. And it was causing a disconnect for people coming in. You come in with that old name and you start seeing, even though we still have some exhibits that are older, but we have new exhibits as well. So there’s kind of a mixture. So there’s a bit of a disconnect there. And we suddenly realised that no, we really needed to change our name. We had outgrown that old name. Or maybe that not the right word, but we weren’t in the same place as that old name was. And we really needed to change the name to be in line with the work that we were doing now.
Kelly Molson: Yeah. Even though, in the sense of the visitor experience, it hasn’t changed that much in terms of how you walk around the building.
James Haddan: Yeah.
Kelly Molson: Actually, the initiatives that you have are so different from what they used to be-
James Haddan: Yes.
Kelly Molson: It was the right time to make that change. It’s interesting, isn’t it? That the pandemic has kind of, one of the positives of it is that it’s given people a little bit of time to sit back and kind of be static and look at what’s already been achieved up until this point.
James Haddan: Yeah, and I think it also gave us permission… In our mind, we couldn’t launch a new name without spending a huge amount of money and having everything, every sign redone, and every graphic, a whole new website, and all of those kinds of things. And so then when you think about well, oh, that’s going to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, to make that a reality.
Suddenly we realised during the pandemic, people are probably going to forgive us if we don’t do it in that way right now.
Kelly Molson: Yeah.
James Haddan: And so, there’s actually now, our team was much reduced because of the pandemic. And so, now, I oversee development and marketing and I think the staff had previously been say, eight, it depends how you count them. And now there’s two of us.
Kelly Molson: Gosh.
James Haddan: So there’s me and Kelsey Pickert, who is just the greatest partner to have, in crime, so to speak. And we made it happen. We worked with a wonderful graphic designer named Helen Good, who had worked with us in the past, when we had been kind of working with stakeholder groups about the museum and things. And we contracted with her and we figured out a way to launch a new name and new brand. It’s a transitional brand right now because we wanted to kind of let the community get used to the fact that the old name is going away. But we did the first round in six weeks.
Kelly Molson: Wow.
James Haddan: Yeah. The board voted to change the name at the end of June 2020. That’s when they officially picked the new name. And we had graphics ready to go. We had hoped that we might be able to reopen in July, so we’d kind of given ourselves a July deadline to kind of launch it. And we were ready to go, but we weren’t allowed to reopen at that period in time and so we just kind of waited for a bit. And then months went by, and we weren’t sure when we were going to be able to reopen. And we weren’t sure when should we announce the new name and we finally just decided to do it in August, even though we weren’t reopened.
So we announced the name on August 2. The new name and had a front-page local news story about it. It ended up being picked up all over the world. The story went all over the world, the name change. And so then we had a brief reopening in September with the new name.
It’s interesting because we just installed the permanent sign on the exterior of the building in December and when we posted that on social media, I think it suddenly sunk into many people that we were serious, that the name really changed. Because people, all of a sudden, you changed your name. Well, yes, months ago.
Kelly Molson: I can’t believe how much you achieved in such a short space of time. I’m laughing because having worked with cultural organisations before, we all know that things do take an awful lot of time to get signed off. So that’s a massive achievement.
James Haddan: Yeah.
Kelly Molson: With a team of two and your graphic designer. So, yeah. Hats off to you. I’d like to ask, there will be, in the UK no doubt, and I know this podcast gets listened to all over the world, thank you, listeners, there’ll be other museums that will be thinking about this or starting this process or trying to understand how they start this process. What would be your best advice to those museums that are considering going down this path?
James Haddan: So, I think one obvious one is for it not to be performative. For people to really think it through and to make sure that they are doing internal changes within their organisation because if you haven’t started that work internally, the external communities that you start working with can feel that. And understandably don’t want to be a part of that kind of tokenised process of being a performative process.
They really have to understand that this is something that you’re committed too, that’s why I mentioned our board and our CEO earlier. This is a leadership shift and change that we have. And there also needs to be changes in leadership. We have a board which is, and I don’t have the percentages right in front of me, but I think it’s around half of the people of colour and I think more women on the board than men. And we have Native Americans on staff.
So you have to start making your institution reflective of your community if you expect to be able to have a conversation and work with the community that you need to work with. And I want to be really clear about saying we still have a lot of work to do in that. We’re not where we want to be in that. But I think after a number of years now, at least people are seeing that we’re committed to it and that we’re making real structural changes.
Kelly Molson: Thank you, James. I think this has been such an interesting discussion and I really respect how honest you’ve been about the process that you’ve gone through and the changes that you’ve made, so thank you.
We always ask our guests about a book that they would recommend. Now it can be a book that you love, it can be a book that’s helped shape your career in some way. What have you chosen for us today?
James Haddan: So, I have chosen Decolonizing Wealth by Edgar Villanueva. And I think it’s a really brilliant book. And it’s not a really long read and he writes in a way that really engaging and easy to digest. A lot of really kind of substantial ideas, but around philanthropy and the whole kind of nonprofit sector. And how the colonial paradigm is deeply embedded in that. And that to start making changes in other systems, we’re going to have to start making changes there.
And he really approaches it from idea of approaching it with an idea around Indigenous healing and how philanthropy, if it changes in certain ways, can be a part of the healing process. And I just think it’s a really brilliantly written book and it’s in a way that makes you think about those things differently but I think also doesn’t scare you. It inspires you but doesn’t scare you.
I think a lot of these ideas are really scary for people because change can be scary. And so sometimes you need to read about it in ways where you realise that this sort of community healing is good for us all. When we help communities that have suffered and experienced trauma, it helps us all.
Kelly Molson: Completely agree. What a perfect book for this podcast. As ever, listeners, if you would like to be with the chance of winning this book if you head over to our Twitter account, and you retweet this episode announcement with the comment, “I want James’ book”, then you will be in with a chance of winning it.
James, before we go, I want to just go back, because there was a question that I wanted to ask that I completely missed off. You have reopened now in the US-
James Haddan: Yes.
Kelly Molson: Which is super exciting. It’s really, it’s so lovely to hear about positive reopening stories. What’s next for the museum in terms of the initiatives that you have running?
James Haddan: So our big initiative is really around, I mentioned that even my department, development and marketing, is embracing decolonising strategies. And so we have initiated this program called Membership on Us, which means for the price of a single-day admission, you have a membership to the museum for the rest of the year.
And so, for the price of daily admission, you can come back as many times as you want over and over during the year. And we’ve done away with that traditional membership structure, which is very embedded in this idea of if you can pay more, you receive more benefits, you’re treated differently at the museum, all of those kinds of things that are really antithetical to what the Museum of Us, which is about all of us, is about. And we want everyone to have a more equitable way of accessing the work that we do.
And so we announced this new program just before we reopened, and we really think that it goes hand in hand with our new name, with the decolonizing work that we’re doing and we’re really super excited about it. And the response has already been really off the chart, really.
Kelly Molson: Oh, that’s really excellent to hear. That’s really, really excellent to hear. James, thank you. I’ve really enjoyed this conversation. What I want to know though is next time you’re in the UK, are you going to hit me up so that we can go for a bacon sandwich together?
James Haddan: I definitely will.
Kelly Molson: I’ll introduce you to my favourite place to get a good cup of tea.
James Haddan: I can’t wait.
Kelly Molson: James, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. It’s been a pleasure.
James Haddan: Thank you.
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