Colleen Schmitz, Abi Ashton, Shaaron Leverment
Pioneers organisations have explored in-depth the draft version on the DiverSci website; raised awareness, ignited action and scrutinised areas of their practice across Content, Partnerships, Access, Staff and Strategy. We thank them for their honest and open shared experiences during this pilot phase.
COLLEEN SCHMITZ, Head of Exhibitions, Research and Public Programmes, BIOTOPIA, Munich, Germany
-Originally published in SPOKES #73
BIOTOPIA is presently a small institution that is reinventing the current Museum ‘Mensch und Natur’ for the 21st Century. Together with ‘Mensch und Natur’ we are in the process of developing the new museum building and main exhibitions. We aim to spark visitors’ curiosity to explore life, foster empathy by creating new ways of thinking about human beings’ relationship to the living world and promote individual and collective agency through discussion and reflection on the myriad of ways we can shape the future of life on this planet.
Our opening is scheduled for 2028. In the lead-in phase, we have a small interim space called the BIOTOPIA-Lab in the Munich Botanical Institute for events, school programs and small exhibitions. We also hold a yearly festival (Covid-permitting) and offer digital citizen science projects, events and programmes.
What led you to be so committed to EDI work?
Before coming to BIOTOPIA I had been working at the Deutsches Hygiene-Museum in Dresden, Germany. The Hygiene-Museum was an early pioneer in the German museum landscape in making accessibility a central institutional value and building on this over time to become more inclusive in its approach to audience development. So for me, I guess you could say diversity and inclusion are part of my DNA – even though I do still have a lot to learn! As Head of Exhibitions, Research and Public Programmes at BIOTOPIA I am in a position to help shape EDI (Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) at a strategic level. And with curiosity, empathy and agency for the living world as core values, EDI is naturally central to BIOTOPIA’s mission.
When joining BIOTOPIA, I was eager to get the ball rolling on this right from the start. Infusing EDI strategies into the institution at an early stage helps lay the groundwork for making it a natural part of everything we do as we grow as an institution. This is a very unique opportunity and very exciting, both in regard to internal practices and in regard to audience development strategies.
What was your main motivation to join the Pioneers group?
The main challenge for us after committing to begin the journey was how to best proceed. As a small and new institution, it was clear that we needed support and guidance. The Equity@Ecsite Pioneer group was a wonderful opportunity to use the power of leverage to drive EDI development, not only within our own institution, but also in the field of science engagement on a European level. In particular, the framework offered good orientation and a structure in which to approach this dauntingly large task. It also provided useful tools and tips for getting things started and keeping them moving.
Once you were introduced to the framework, what did you do first?
As recommended by the framework, I looked for support amongst my colleagues – in BIOTOPIA and ‘Mensch und Natur’ – and formed a cross-institutional working group made up of representatives from the different departments and areas.
At the same time, I commissioned two consultant groups: one group with strong experience in the EDI and intercultural communication field, and the other in the field of audience development. The idea behind this was to create synergies between developing our audience engagement strategy and our EDI action plan by having experts working closely with us on our specific profile and needs. This two-pronged approach also put material weight behind the institution’s commitment and provided a concrete timeframe in which to accomplish the initial goals.
What have you found to be the most valuable aspect of being part of this collaborative project?
It has allowed us to benefit from and contribute to the knowledge, skills, connections and experiences of the other Pioneers and the wider Equity@Ecsite network. It helped to anchor internal commitment and embed the process in a broader professional movement for action, change and accountability.
THIS [PROJECT] HAS PROVEN INVIGORATING, MOTIVATING AND ENLIGHTENING
Being part of the Pioneer group and the wider Equity@Ecsite Community of Practice offered a constructive space for experimentation and an exchange of experiences. This has proven invigorating, motivating and enlightening.
Also, I found that having an individual mentor for a small group of German-speaking mentees was very valuable. Not only did the experience of our mentor, Barbara Streicher, provide confidence and helpful advice; the intimacy of a small group in a more or less similar cultural/historical landscape complemented the support and expertise of the larger international network; it also allowed for some specific conversations around EDI that are more specific to Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
Can you share a couple of examples of what you have done since your first steps?
Yes, despite Covid-19, I think BIOTOPIA has made good progress on this, first and foremost in the area of strategy. As I mentioned above, we have an EDI Working Group, of which I am the head. The members of the group have been strongly engaged and other colleagues have requested to join should a place become available.
The group has co-created an initial short and poignant EDI statement for the website in German and English and has embarked on developing a longer internal draft that states our thinking in detail and defines the terminology we are using. The working group representatives are now working within their individual departments on a draft action plan that will feed into the overall strategic action plan. We aim to have this accomplished by the end of the year. And, with the help of our advisors and tips from the Community of Practice, the EDI Working Group has also put together an archive of good practice examples, relevant literature and documentation of the process; to serve as a source for continually updating our knowledge and tracking the progress we have made – both big and small.
Besides the Working Group progress, awareness for EDI has increased within the institution overall. The work of the Working Group and the Pioneer work with Equity@Ecsite has been reported on in staff meetings and at BIOTOPIA’s annual International Advisory Board Meeting. We have also held several cross-institutional workshops on EDI and audience engagement that were well attended and sparked meaningful and important conversations; a significant number of staff members have enthusiastically participated and given positive and constructive feedback on the process. Having external consultants has helped moderate the internal process in a way that the newly formed internal Working Group would have struggled with, without more training and guidelines in place.
Our personnel department has recently really forged ahead. They have not only begun creating its draft action plan, it is already finalising a new job advertisement template based on good EDI practice. It is also creating synergies between our EDI development and the change management process that is accompanying the metamorphosis of ‘Mensch and Natur’ to BIOTOPIA. On a more anecdotal level, colleagues have begun actively consulting with members of the Working Group when specific questions come up in day-to-day work, which is really fantastic.
Last but not least, together with other Pioneers, we shared our institutions’ experience as a Pioneer in the session: ‘Glows and grows of the Equity@Ecsite pioneer institutions’ at the 2021 Ecsite Online Conference in June. And oh, I almost forgot to mention: BIOTOPIA finished the Pioneer phase! We are definitely proud of that and looking forward to continuing to contribute to the Ecsite group in one form or another in the future.
The amount of movement forward is incredible! What challenges have you faced along the way?
As a small institution in the founding, committing human resources continually to the process has proven challenging when unexpected situations have redirected attention to a more immediately pressing issue. Finding a good strategy to balance day-to-day business, unexpected interruptions and important long-term goals is definitely tricky.
Of course, Covid-19 has slowed down the process in general. Specifically, discussing provocative issues is definitely more challenging with Zoom, especially considering the fact that a good number of new staff members came on board during lockdown and have never even met each other once in person. Also, it has proven difficult for some staff members, who are not used to desk or remote work, to work on zoom and use online tools like Miro. Also, much EDI literature, discourse and good practice examples are from English-speaking countries. Some staff members do not feel comfortable with English. Much terminology also does not translate well into German. This will definitely be an area we want to improve in while forging on.
What learnings from this project phase will you keep with you on your journey forward?
Celebrate the small steps, join forces and share resources!