Thursday, May 28, 2020

Empathy-Informed Balance in the Age of Coronavirus and Beyond

Some Internet People say some that sparks something in your brain. Some Internet People strike the flint every time. Ellice Engdahl is one of those internet people for me. Every thoughtful medium post and every considered tweet, they also get me thinking. I will say since noticing her online, I've since met her. So, she isn't just Internet People, I assure you. But, I hope this blog post will get you following her. Once you feel the spark, over and over, you'll know what I mean.

Author: Ellice Engdahl

When Seema asked me to write a post “taking stock of the industry,” I started to run through all the things that have been bouncing around my mind since the world changed. There were many, covering the personal and the professional (which, as this community knows well, is also personal), but I kept looking for some elusive grand unified theory to tie them all together. At last it came to me: balance, informed by empathy.

It’s human at times of great upheaval to want to just react, moving all the way to one side of the spectrum on any given decision. Even in physics, every action has an equal and opposite reaction, right?  But I’d argue that the best way to proceed is the middle path. Cultural institutions aren’t always the best at this—we are often all in or all out.

But the world is in a different place now than it was just a few months ago. We’re all starting to see the gaps and fragility in institutions and systems we may foolishly have believed were rock-strong, or at least unlikely to be tested so vigorously. A recent episode of the podcast On Being discussed how people who’ve encountered deep suffering lose the ability to distance themselves from suffering in others, quoting Pema Chรถdrรถn’s When Things Fall Apart:
“This kinship with the suffering of others, this inability to continue to regard it from afar, is the discovery of our soft spot, the discovery of bodhichitta. Bodhichitta is a Sanskrit word that means “noble or awakened heart.” It is said to be present in all beings. Just as butter is inherent in milk and oil is inherent in a sesame seed, this soft spot is inherent in you and me.”

If this is true, multiple months into this pandemic, we may all have discovered our latent noble heart.  In coming weeks, months, and even years, we should use our bodhichitta to move us forward in a balanced way. Here are a few of the ways we might try this, to behoove us both during the current crisis and beyond it.

·         Find the balance between managing your budget and taking care of your staff. Megan Smith incisively covered the sad state of staffing in the museum industry pre-coronavirus, as well as her fears for staffers post-coronavirus, in a previous post for Museum 2.0, so I won’t belabor this one. We clearly need to find the balance between keeping our institutions financially viable and treating our workforce as it deserves to be treated. This wasn’t easy before and it will be even harder now, but as attention to labor concerns increases and our understanding of who “essential workers” really are shifts, now is the time.

·         Strike a balance between “real” value and perceived value. Which staff now seem the most critical to your institution? Is it the same ones you thought it was before the pandemic? Who isn’t laid off, furloughed, or let go? Which planned projects seem worth the staff time and dollars you had allocated to them, and which don’t? Are you just setting these aside with the idea of returning to them all later, when funding is available, or is a larger re-evaluation merited? What really moves your institution forward, and what is unnecessary whiz-bang?

·         Establish a fair balance between the global state of emergency and individual professional concerns. It’s easy in these unprecedented times to be willing to set aside your “normal” professional concerns—professional development, say, or treatment at your institution that doesn’t seem fair or equitable. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t apply some sensitivity, given the scenario we all find ourselves in, but now is not the time to be unnecessarily selfless or accommodate away fair treatment—especially for marginalized groups and women, who are often quick to give things up for the greater good, or let them go because accommodation seems like the only option for career advancement. We should all be giving back now, in whatever ways we can, but the burden of selflessness shouldn’t fall on the same shoulders it always does. This goes both for yourself and for those around you, who likely need your support now more than ever.

·         Balance your assumptions and your audience’s needs. I’m finding it interesting how often lately I hear people talking about what they personally need in this time (vis-ร -vis digital content, virtual experiences, physical safety, comfort, etc.) as if that is what everyone needs. The old “people don’t want x, they want y” declaration by an oblivious product manager or development team is a long-standing bugaboo against which ideas like user personas, co-created content, and design thinking have fought back. Still, we should keep at the front of our minds that right now, human needs and wants vary as widely as ever—if not more widely—and your museum shouldn’t take for granted that it knows what will work for everyone. Make some assumptions, but prove those out by asking your audience(s) and examining their reaction to what you’re doing.

·         There must be a balance between your mission and your messaging. This is a corollary to the above: What parts of your mission match up to what your audience(s) really need right now? What parts don’t? If you are communicating without doing this analysis, you run the risk of appearing tone-deaf. Bring your bodhichitta to your brand.

·         Reassess the balance between slick-and-produced and real-and-authentic. This is a corollary to the above corollary: In an era where we are all becoming accustomed to seeing the bookshelves, bedrooms, children, and pets of our coworkers and public figures alike, I’m hoping we’ll reassess how much fit-and-finish is truly needed to get our institutional messages across. Sometimes quick-and-dirty does the job better than a slick puff piece ever could.

·        Balance conscientious preparation with agility. It’s been informative to see the range of museum responses to a world in which people cannot physically visit our campuses. Some museums have had robust digital programs for years, and pivoted easily (or seemingly easily) to a digital-only presence; others have not made digital a priority and are scrambling to adjust; and then there’s every degree in-between. It’s hard to ding any cultural institution for not preparing for a future so few of us saw coming, but there’s always been a need to pivot when unexpected things happen. Right now, we have to continue to prepare for the future we anticipate, but also constantly readjust and switch things up as the world changes around us. One lesson I think we’ve all learned (or had reiterated): Having fundamental documentation of your collections and your physical space opens up near-infinite possibilities to build upon. (See the note above about what moves you forward vs. whiz-bang.)

At the risk of sounding like the hippie-at-heart that I am, I think using our newly-awakened hearts to bring balance to our institutions has never been more important—or more possible.  Let’s do it.

Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford, where she manages ongoing collections digitization work and facilitates storytelling on the web. She knows from experience that life is damned hard, so spends a lot of time thinking about how to make it better for herself and others. You can find random thoughts from her on Twitter and Medium.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Do they “get it” now? The value of #musesocial and #musetech in the era of COVID-19

Lori is one of those people you'll never forget meeting. If I needed someone to help me take over a small country or plan a giant party, I'd like her on my side. Or rather, I'd be glad to be on her side. She's a force, full of energy, and excitement. But, like the best of high-energy people, she's also intensely supportive and collaborative. In a field where we often work on our own, in isolation, people who are proactive about connecting constructively with others can feel rare. I'm thrilled that this co-conspirator is someone I know--and someone who is willing to share her ideas here.

By Lori Byrd-McDevitt
After a decade spearheading the social media presence at the world’s largest children’s museum, Lori now co-owns her agency 1909 DIGITAL where she helps others with their digital strategy. She founded the Museum Social Media Managers Facebook Group as well as the MCN Social Media SIG, and she currently is behind MCN’s social channels. She is an adjunct in JHU’s museum studies faculty.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the value of the digital museum sector over the past month. From the second that museum doors started closing to the public, it was an ah-ha moment—“We were made for this. It’s our time to shine. Let’s do this.” But something that’s so obvious to me isn’t necessarily so obvious to those decision-makers in the C-suite. Or it’s taken for granted when you make it look so effortless. Consider too that it’s not easy to articulate this value for those who are in just do it, because you’re awesome at it. 

It’s been keeping me up at night, the issue of finding a way to concisely illustrate how you’re impacting—even saving—your museums during this actual crisis scenario. Okay fine, if I’m being honest, I’ve had to be consoled after being found crying over the matter on more than one occasion. “What’s really wrong?” I was asked. “I just want to save my friends’ jobs. Things are moving too fast. I’m not doing enough.” Sounds dramatic, I know. But it’s honestly how I feel.

I had to let the “fix this now! *stomp* stomp*” idea go, or I’d drive myself insane. Boards and CEOs that are going to make quick decisions about layoffs and furloughs wouldn’t change their minds because of a blog post or a whitepaper I wrote tomorrow. Organizations who are unfortunately so fiscally fragile that they permanently layoff staff a week after closing, or who have poor leadership who wouldn’t even think to cut C-suite salaries before getting rid of jobs,—these are not my audience. Sharing the immensity of the value of #musesocial and #musetech is a long game, and it’s one meant for the smart leaders who will listen as they’re making tough decisions in the months ahead.

Let’s unpack all of this, shall we?

Fact #1: You stepped up, epically. 
When museum doors closed, those behind the museum websites and social channels stood up and said, “We got this.” Who made that happen? You guys did. In whatever way made sense for your organization, whether it was big or small. Whether you had a lot of power, or if you had only a little bit of power and had to push through a lot of internal politics to do a tiny did it.

A helpful thing to do:
Don’t forget that. Don’t forget that you and your team were the superheroes when your supervisors and CEOs take credit. Don’t forget it when others forget it, either.

Fact #2: It matters to people. 
Yesterday feels like a month ago and last week feels like a year ago. The popular quarantine “thing” changes by the millisecond. Don’t worry about that. Know that the thing you made, and the things you continue to make, matter to your audiences. Whether it’s local interest or a specific niche. Also, think about the big picture. Museums have made waves. Check out any of the national and international press about museum technology and social media. You’re all contributing to that. Whether or not virtual museum tours are as “cool” as baking bread at home this week. What you’re doing matters.

A helpful thing to do: Don’t forget to take a breath and capture your metrics. Look at the full context of your social media engagement and what is different about now and typical content.

Fact #3: You share the love.
Beyond freely sharing your organization’s beauty, humor, and history with the world, you’ve also shared your learnings with one another. You’ve taken the time out of your head-spinning busy days to respond in a Basecamp, Twitter, or Facebook thread about a timely technical topic. You’ve contributed to a webinar, whether as a guest or a chat participant. Perhaps you’ve been interviewed about a campaign to share behind-the-scenes tips, or you’ve blogged about it on your own. This information-sharing is invaluable at a time when reinventing the wheel would truly be a detriment to our field. 

A helpful thing to do: If you’re participating in these community discussions, make sure your superiors know that you’re showing initiative and value in this way. Whether it’s sharing information or seeking it.

Fact #4: We must document it. 
Look around you. This time is historic. You know this in the sense that many of you are asking your communities to virtually contribute content (side note: another way you’re providing value!) It’s also a watershed moment for our sector. You have become the epicenter of content flow; our platforms are the necessity for colleagues to stay relevant. For years you’ve fought to be taken seriously alongside other departments, and you’ve now risen to the occasion and knocked it out of the park. We can’t let this moment pass without thoroughly documenting your efforts. It’s essential that we take the time to write case studies, gather metrics, capture screenshots. 

A helpful thing to do: Submit proposals to virtual conferences (like MCN!), even in the midst of uncertainty. Formally documenting your projects is so important. Don’t underestimate your contributions. It’s a tough time to submit proposals when museums have restricted budgets, but know that professional organizations are doing all they can to ensure the community can participate. 

And so, there’s not one answer here. Just as we’ve naturally been collaborating from day one, we’ll continue to collaborate day after day. Priorities will shift as inevitable furloughs and layoffs continue, but we’ll maintain our resourcefulness, humor, and creativity in spite of it all. When those museums suffering through staff reductions bounce back, we should be ready with resources to make it an easy decision to rehire, or newly hire, a digital team. Brilliant case studies can show them just what they’re missing out on. For those organizations thrifty and smart enough to maintain their #musesocial and #musetech staff during the crisis, I know this surely isn’t our only “time to shine.” It’s just the beginning of our blindingly sparkly reign as digital-first museums. 

Thursday, May 07, 2020

Covid-19 and Museum

As we are all making adjustments to living through a global pandemic I've tried to reach out more. As a Historic Interpreter for Telfair Museums, I would lead visitors through the Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarters on a 45 minute guided tour of antebellum Savannah history discussing politics and urban slavery.  When the Museum closed I was expecting the next few weeks to be different.  
When my institution first closed I decided to reach out to twitter for interaction. Normally I use twitter to follow to network and learn about how others are making changes in the field, expanding audiences, and the history we interpret.  Twitter is how I first learned about the #museumsarenotneutral and #museumsrespondtofurgusion (from Aleia Brown and Adrianne Russell) and ongoing conversations about transparency in hiring practices.  I knew that I would miss the social aspects of my job. As an interpreter, research and tours dominate my professional time, in this time of transition I’m eager to learn from this moment and what better way than by talking with people.
In my initial calls, I was interested in learning how others were coping. I was hoping to chat, discuss our emotions during this moment, vent if need be but mostly, be there for each other.  I felt like these connections would help us grow in this moment and if people were doing good work we wanted to share.  I felt like one on one of these conversations could be honest, supportive, and genuine in our feelings.  These created communities allows many of us to process this moment with each other.  
I set up digital lunches. I hoped, at this moment of many museum professionals working at home, that I could have some digital lunches.  I had these digital meetings with historians and museum professionals at various levels, specialties, and locations. Previously I had become interested in public history in Baltimore, a graduate student in North Carolina, and a professional in Savannah but my conversations expanded to NY, New Jersey, South Carolina, California and Tennessee.  We discussed our passion for history, art, and education. We mourned each other’s furloughs (mine arrived halfway into April), our different state’s response to this moment, and missing our favorite coworkers. We traded working at-home methods, streaming recommendations, and self-care tactics. When I talked to Sierra deGroot of the Poster House in NY, we did a full deep dive into cartoons from the 90s and early 2000s and where they are currently streaming.  We gave each other the minor assignments to watch a movie from our childhood (me Space Jam and her A Goofy Movie) to relax.  I saw and still see this ongoing need to connect as an opportunity to create a community to grieve with during this moment but to also help each other chill.  
Twitter, like all social media, allows me to curate my view of the outside world. I’ve been interested in how other institutions are handling this. Working in museums is a constant learning opportunity thus it is important to see who is being inventive at this moment. Who is taking risks in finding new and inventive ways to serve audiences? Who is serving the community’s needs? Who is explaining the complicated museum finances of what museums can and cannot do at this moment? The twitter account and collective art + museum transparency has been tracking in twitter thread and spreadsheet.  Seeing what museums are furloughing pro-union professionals, what museums are determined to keep going, and who is not planning on reopening.   These conversations have been bubbling up for a few years but this moment we’re looking at priorities of institutions.  Many of us find joy in the social media account of the National Cowboy Museum but isn’t also an example of bringing new voices to the table.  This moment leaves us open to connect through our love of this field and less serious things like cartoons This moment can be learning opportunity for many of us learning how good work can occur, how staff can be protected, and how history and art both soothes and protects us during national tragedies. But maybe more important we can learn is how to connect with each other.  With that connection, we can focus on each other.  So for other professionals working in museums, historic sites, national parks, and other places for public humanities I urge you to reach out to each other to strengthen the communities you are a part of.  

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Let's Be Honest

Many museum conferences have a moment of unfettered camaraderie and unvarnished joy--that moment is at karaoke. If you've not made it to one, not had the full heart of swaying with faraway conference friends as Wonderwall is sung with much more joy than the Gallagher's could imagine, you're in for a treat when you finally join us. It was one of those moments when I was standing on a banquet (why question the story now?), and belting something I had no idea I knew the words to with someone else. Megan was the person also standing on a banquet singing along with me.

That moment is a bit of a metaphor for me. When I read Megan's tweets, I often feel as if she is saying exactly what I think but better. She is also hitting it just right, telling the truth that we didn't know we needed. I'm not surprised her essay is entitled "Let's Be Honest", because that's exactly what I hoped she'd do. In this moment of uncertainty, honesty is the greatest gift you can be given.
Author: Megan Smith

How are you?  

I’m grieving. I bet you are too. It’s awful, watching our beloved field crumble. Every day--more layoffs, more furloughs, more people and institutions who were already balanced on the edge pushed off.  

I know that there will be a rising. Because museum people are the most creative, devoted, and scrappy people in the world. We know how to do more with less. We pour our hearts and souls into our work.  

But that’s also what I’m afraid of. 

As the museum field eventually bounces back, there will be pressure for us to accept not only the pre-covid status quo, but even less. Universities will be eager for tuition income. Cash-strapped institutions will ask us to sacrifice because they know our deep love for this work and our enormous desire to save what we had. Those of us still employed will be grateful just to have jobs.  

It was in this admittedly depressing mindframe that I wrote the following tweet last month: 

I was pretty shocked by all of the people who thanked me for my honesty. I assumed this was something we were all thinking. Are we just not saying it enough? 

What other common museum knowledge needs to be said out loud, again and again?  Do these resonate with you?
  • More people want to work in museums than there are jobs that exist. 
  • The museum field has always been dependent on unpaid and underpaid labor. Raise your hand if you’ve been an unpaid intern, a volunteer, or a contractor with no benefits in a position that should have been a salaried staff position... (check, check, and check.)  
  • The profession has been overly glamorized. Yes, there are moments of transcendence. But there’s also paperwork, and personnel issues, and the ups and downs of office life. 
  • The challenges don’t stop once you get your foot in the door—there are major roadblocks to career advancement at every stage.  
  • You don’t need a graduate degree to work an entry-level museum job, and museums often require them simply as a way to reduce the enormous numbers of applicants they get for every position. It’s a buyers’ market, as far as museum labor goes.  
  • Many of us settle for wages and working conditions we wouldn’t accept in other industries because we feel lucky to do work we consider meaningful and often even part of our identity.  
  • All of these challenges are amplified by the systemic racism, classism, and sexism embedded in our industry. 

When we speak and think about museums, many of us naturally focus on the joy and wonder, the visceral excitement of handling collections, the powerful feeling of bringing people together. Are enough of us being honest with ourselves, with each other, and especially with people who are looking to get into the field?    

Because before we rebuild the museum world we want, we need to be honest about the current reality. We won’t be able to make the changes the field so desperately needs if we return from COVID-19 just grateful to be here. We must reimagine and build a museum field that is stronger, more just, more honest, more humane to the people that are its heart and engine.  

Three years ago I was in a brainstorming workshop about a women’s history exhibition. After a series of academic talks, my friend and mentor Janeen Bryant asked the whole room to stand up.  She began to chant, over and over, asking us to join in:  

We can’t begin to heal until we tell the truth.  

We became a chorus, our vocalizations a pledge to each other to not back away from what was true, no matter how seductive or lucrative it might be to pretty things up. It was a powerful moment, one that I’ve been thinking about ever since, and it's resonated even more over the last month and a half.  

We can’t begin to heal until we tell the truth. Let’s rebuild, with full hearts, but with clear eyes, too. 

Megan Smith is Senior Creative Developer at the National Museum of American History. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Creative, Authentic and United: Digital Engagement during COVID-19

This week we're hearing from Eastman Museum's Kate Meyers Emery.

Kate's the sort of person who you want to sit down with. She's a conversationalist, in the best sense of the word. She listens, considers, and then shares. And, with her, I've had conversations that stick with me. I honestly still think about a conversation I had with her years ago about interpretation. I wish I could relate that conversation, but it would be hard because it doesn't quite relate without Kate doing the talking. Her take on things, and her gentle, thoughtful way of sharing, makes all the difference.

When I wanted to try to understand where we are going as a field and wanted to try to do so thoughtfully by first taking stock, Kate's name was one of the first on my list.

Author: Kate Meyers Emery

Over the last five weeks, I’ve been amazed and inspired by my colleagues in the GLAM digital engagement world. They are producing innovative online campaigns, reusing available content in creative ways, finding ways to create new content from home, and doing most of this with little to no budget, limited or no access to physical objects, and limited access to their colleagues. They have created elevated and new digital opportunities for public access and engagement within their respective museums at a time when physical access is not possible. And they have come together as a community, using social media and other means to connect with one another, support each other’s endeavors, share our strategies and campaigns, and provide advice and words of comfort. Here, I want to look at some of the digital trends that have appeared during the pandemic, specifically, those that I would love to see us move forward with regardless of whether our doors are open or not. We are expanding digital offerings and reaching a broader audience 360 virtual tours of historic homes, digital exhibitions, webinar-based classes, Q&A with curators on Twitter, online educational resources for all levels of knowledge, increased access to digital resources; it’s been incredible to see how creative cultural organizations have gotten with finding diverse ways to engage the public online and create digital versions of their in-person experiences. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been able to attend talks and tours at museums I would never have been able to because I don’t live in that area. We’re able to engage a massive online community in a way we hadn’t a little over a month ago. We’re also offerings a broader range of ways for people to consume content, from casual bite-sized videos to long-form articles to humorous Twitter threads. We’ve relaxed a little when it comes to needing things to look a certain way or be done to a certain quality level. Staff are creating fun videos from their homes, we’re finding interesting ways to reshare and repackage existing content, we’re inviting the community to participate more in our work, we’re opening our social media to non-curatorial voices (you know, like penguins, dinosaurs, and our newest national treasure, Tim at the National Cowboy Museum).

Let me know if that works!] We are asking our audience what they want W. Ryan Dodge made a comment in his recent Cuseum webinar that we as organizations have been “shifting our goal from how do we attract attention more to how do we engage our community and offer them something of value.” I’ve watched as museums around the world have started asking their followers what they want to see, not just the type of content, but also the medium that it is in. Some museums are doing weekly check-ins to see how their community is doing and what they could offer that would be helpful, or useful, or just enjoyable.

 We are showing a little more personality and being more social Now more than ever, Mar Dixon’s words ring true, that social media needs to be social. People want to make a connection, and now more than ever those little moments of interaction between our organizations and the public online can mean a lot. Museums are stepping up by being more responsive to comments, offering more opportunities for dialogue and questions, and responding directly and openly to requests. What’s more, working from home seems to have brought out the personality in many museums that previously had a more organizational tone. We’re loosening up a little and are showing more of who we are as individuals working in the organization. This also increases our authenticity, because, let’s face it, it is hard not to be authentic when you’re leading a large public webinar from your kitchen table. There’s emotion in our messages, and it’s comforting.
While we’re all dealing with unique challenges, we’re coming together as a community It’s important, with all this, that we recognize that every individual or organization is in a unique set of circumstances. Some digital teams and social media managers have been limited in hours or furloughed or laid off. Some do not have the resources or digital assets and are unable to get them. I’m not sure who said it, but it’s stuck with me: while we’re all in the same storm, we’re not always in the same boat. With this in mind, the museum social media and digital community have been bright spots, and it’s been amazing to watch it blossom under these difficult circumstances. We’ve found online spaces for our community, such as the museum social media managers Facebook group, the #musesocial and #musetech hashtags on Twitter, #DrinkingAboutMuseums meetups on Zoom, and the weekly Cuseum webinars where the chat box serves as a hub for conversation. More than ever, we’re sharing ideas about what works and what doesn’t, borrowing ideas from one another, and setting aside any competitive worries. We’re asking and answering questions, providing resources, and offering support in myriad ways. We have created a safe place to celebrate the wins, vent frustrations, and find solace when we’re scared, defeated, or in need.
For now, I hope we continue taking positive steps. Maybe it’s something small like finding more little ways to engage with the online community or something large like tackling a major digital project that has been on the back burner. As we move forward, I hope we continue to build on what has been started, whether it is digital wins at our own organization or broader shifts in museums, and the public perception of museums, as a whole.

 - - -

 Kate Meyers Emery, Ph.D., is the manager of digital engagement at the George Eastman Museum. She is committed to leveraging digital tools to engage, educate, and entertain the public online. Find her online @kmeyersemery on Twitter and Instagram.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

#KeepThePeopleDancing: Futures in Digital Engagement

This week, we're hearing from Adrienne Lalli Hills. I can't say when I met her, but I certainly remember knowing her. Adrienne is a rare person, true and strong and kind. I love hearing her share her ideas. She has the type of confidence and thoughtfulness that makes you listen. But, she also has an honesty where you know she is listening to you.

Here were her thoughts when I asked her to share her ideas about taking stock:
Author: Adrienne Lalli Hills (Wyandotte Nation)

While many of us might look to the 1918 pandemic as the last analog to this current crisis, the reality is that many marginalized communities have in the century since have endured systemic disease, hunger, and violence at degrees unimaginable to folks of privilege. It’s for this reason that I’ve found the Native community a particularly vital voice in this difficult period—after all, resistance and resilience are intrinsic elements of indigenous history and contemporary identity.

With many nations hit hard by the virus and events canceled, the epidemic has already levied a major economic, cultural, and spiritual impact on Indian Country. Yet within days of the first shelter-in-place orders, I received Facebook invitations to groups such as Social Distance Powwow and Quarantine Dance Specials 2020. Both pages have quickly amassed tens of thousands of followers and, curiously, few spammers and trolls. There, dancers post videos to compete for likes, artists and artisans sell their works, and in the comments, viewers offer prayers and encouragement. On this platform, vibrant and complex expression of the community has manifested in just a few weeks: as during a powwow, honors are made, competitions and specials convened, votes are tallied, and winners announced.

As Tiny Rosales, the creator of Quarantine Dance Specials 2020, remarked in an interview, “We gotta keep the people dancing…keep them dancing no matter what.”

Image used with permission from Mathew Metchewais.
While museums often spend big bucks to foster this type of organic digital engagement, my hunch is that these virtual spaces can’t be Post-ited or design-thought into being. In the same manner that our ancestors transmuted government commodities into toothsome culinary staples, contemporary Native folks have reimagined the rigid architecture of Facebook groups into a nucleation point of spiritual and cultural engagement. Perhaps an A/B tested digital engagement campaign has nothing on good medicine.
As we imagine the post-COVID-19 future of the museum sector, what lessons might we draw from indigenized virtual spaces like these? I’m still turning these questions over in my head:
  •  What if museums sought to engage in healing—of ourselves, our institutions, and our communities—in lieu of engagement?
  • How might we contribute to the resilience of our communities?
  • What does it mean for us to “Keep the People Dancing”? What economic support do we provide? How are we in cultural and spiritual solidarity with our communities?
  • What can we learn from the organic and creative interpolation of existing spaces?
  •  Museums are, for the most part, hegemonic creatures. Is it even possible for our institutions to enact culture work in a decentralized manner of these Facebook groups?
  • When do we contribute instead of leading? When is it more appropriate for institutional voices to simply stay in the comments?
  •  A strength of these Facebook groups is intergenerational engagement—parents, aunties, grandparents and elders are a vital part of indigenous life. How do we ensure that online spaces are accessible to and welcoming for users of all ages, access to the internet, or digital fluency?
  • What are the implications here for cultural engagement IRL?
It’s unlikely that museums could ever foster large-scale organic communities like Social Distancing Powwow or Quarantine Dance Specials 2020. But by attending to and honoring indigenousized spaces—whether virtual or IRL—I posit that we develop essential roadmaps toward a more engaged, resilient, and joyous future. In the comments, I invite you to pose more questions to our field or share examples of how communities are adapting to and thriving in our new reality.
PS: I’d be remiss not to recognize the other innovative ways that marginalized and diasporic communities enact culture in digital spaces. I recommend checking out this fantastic article on the subject of Black joy, resistance, and cross-platform social media discourse.

Adrienne Lalli Hills is the Associate Director of Studio School at the @okcontemporary and on the board of the Museum Education Round Table. She can be found @prarietrawler on Twitter. Through the course of her career, Adrienne Lalli Hills has championed interpretive and programmatic initiatives in art, science, and children’s museums. Presently she is the Associate Director of Studio School at Oklahoma Contemporary in Oklahoma City. Previously she led learning initiatives at leading institutions, including the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, MO. Adrienne earned her MA Curriculum & Instruction from the University of Missouri-Kansas City and has a BFA Studio Arts from the University of Tulsa. She is a citizen of the Wyandotte Nation of Oklahoma.

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Taking Stock

Spring has arrived in Cleveland. Bright sun, chirping robins, terrible thunderstorms are regular occurrences all of a sudden. 

I was sitting in a rare quiet moment, noticing the season (thanks to a colleague mentioning the arrival of Spring), when I realized it had been years since I’d noted Spring. Great Lakes denizens know spring is a capricious season, often masquerading as winter, fall, spring, and summer in the same day. But, as a child, I vividly remember long expanses of spring puddles. I remember eagerly looking for spring flowers and broken blue eggs. Of course, while seasonal changes have undoubtedly occurred in my lifetime, the biggest difference in the springs of my youth and my more recent springs is likely me. As a child, noticing the world was part of my life and my job. As an adult, I’ve trained myself to notice a much smaller set of elements of the world. Being able to train yourself to be a grown-up can be important for work and life.

But in the last month, every element of life has gone into flux. Work and family now happen in concurrent time frames, all running with a slow, rumbling soundtrack of uncertainty and anxiety. All of society is in change. In the midst of that, for those in the museum field, every aspect of our work has been called into question, at the mercy of the same financial forces of so many other industries. 

In other words, it’s been a tough few weeks. Last month, I wanted to channel the current moment and share some thoughts about the moment both from me and from social media comments. I suspect many of you still need time to share those "at the moment" feelings about the pandemic. I’m happy to listen to those (on social media or in comments). But here at the blog, I wanted to try to find ways to think about moving forward. 

In the next few weeks, I’ve invited people to write blog posts about taking stock of the field in the face of this epidemic. I’ve given them the flexibility in answering that question. 

For me, I’m seeing taking stock as teaching myself, again, to be able to notice the things I’d forgotten to notice. Like the child-like me, who didn’t forgo noticing spring, I’ve been spending time reading and noticing what I’m thinking about those articles. I’m remembering aspects of my work and career and trying to understand how those choices impacted the field and my work now. I’m also thinking hard about what are the best ways to move forward. 

The field doesn’t have to be rebuilt as it was. At the same time, there were important good elements that should be saved. But, without taking stock of both good and bad, we are very likely to make many of the same mistakes. 

In this spring of our future, taking note, thoughtfully, openly, and with a critical eye, can help us work together to develop a better field. 

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Self-Care for Now and Thinking about What we Know Right Now

Written by: Seema Rao

All, for the end of the month, I asked you what you're learning. I thought I'd share first, a bit of how I'm learning about myself. I went back to my roots this week, mapping out how I felt and was reacting. I made a little free brochure of my exercises, Self-Care for Now, and I'd love to hear if you have any you've enjoyed.

Now, onto the question:
Many of the tweets were about how we need to change, right now:
Others reminded us of our strengths but also the really tough place our field is in:

But perhaps the most telling to me were the ones about the ways we're trying our best and finding ways to cope:

No comment struck me as important as this last feels like the only path forward.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Museum Work Today: All the Feels All the Time

I’m not trying to make each week a Covid diary, but, well, it feels all-consuming. And I bet, many of you, like me, need resources, comfort, validation, and guidance.

For the last, some help with the path forward, I was recently asked to speak on a webinar. Many people more qualified than I joined the call as listeners. When I agreed, I honestly did it because I like the people who asked me—they’re good guys. Once I realized what I’d said yes to, I thought, I don’t really have much guidance to give other than my truths. It feels like realness is a gift worth giving right now. I’m sitting in my pajamas trying not to break into the wine most days. But in a way, maybe that’s the guidance we need. That all of us, even the leaders, are muddling through this. We’ve been ripped from one reality and forced into a new one. The rules keep changing and the fear seems continuous. It’s hard. And it’s okay to admit you’re not always okay with it; I sure as heck am not. We’re trying to make ends meet and hope we’re not meeting our end. This is REALLY hard, and it has affected me to the core. And it’s okay to admit this. It’s okay to show your bruises. And we need more people who lead by being truthful and intrepid and scared and nervous; people who still go to work, virtually, the next day.

The best guidance I’ve seen is often "small act" guidance. It’s the person who answers your question about zoom or the person who passes on their work at home policy.

Our reserved sector is just telling truths these days. And that’s a form of guidance. It’s the way that people share their real feelings on social. I’ve seen a number of these, like a tweet reminding us it might be hard to fully pivot to digital while mourning the loss of society as we know it. Damn straight, it is. And another person stopping to share tough things on some crazy thread about movies. It’s pretty tough to speak up for your truth to the world and 48 people you don’t know. That’s the kind of ordinary bravery that will help us survive. And to the others who engaged with her, and didn’t ignore the feelings, that’s also bravery. Also, to all the people in that thread having some fun, that is another form of bravery. There are many ways we’ll survive this. And at the start, there is no need to say one is wrong or not. They’re probably all important.

Our collective has given me comfort, though it is interesting, our field hasn’t necessarily. Like so many in this work, I’ve seen the bootstrap to wedding rental dichotomy of budgeting. The last ten years saw our work move toward the service sector as rentals become a very real part of our business model. As with the service sector, so our fate. It was the choice we made with the best intentions. Diversifying income streams made sense, on a level. But that choice also exacerbated our situation. But hindsight and time turners are not useful now. What's useful is to keep going.

I’ve been thinking recently about a very late evening in grad school when a friend and I were arguing about the Renaissance that could have been if it were not for the Black Death. Sure, there could have been an earlier Renassaince. Sure, it could have looked different. We've morphed ourselves into an alternate history. The future of our past was something we will never know. We need to stand tall in this present and get to another future. The hypothetical is for graduate school; the actual is for now. I hope we are not in the Black Death, but our society will be fundamentally transformed, if not due to the economic factors alone. Eventually, we need to say to ourselves as a field, 'what is the Renaissance you’re planning?'

Maybe that’s not the question for today though. Because to go back to comfort, I’d say let that question wait for a few days. Let the tough days be. The days when you learn of loss. The days when an original future disappears. Let the anger and frustration come out. Attend to the loneliness and helplessness. Confront new emotions and situations. Make part of your work and life be about existing in the now and taking care of yourself. Be kind to yourself and to each other. Assume everyone is living in a blender of emotions. Expect they've had a challenge. Allow for their emotions. Listen and care. Be as human and humane as you can. Get to the real, because it's all we have.

The future will come. We will have time for the Renaissance, but only if we make it through. And, given how resilient our field is, I know we can.

Now what? Here are some actions that can keep us moving forward: 
1. Some fun and games:
Most of us in this field are insanely resourceful. We are hardworking to a fault, (maybe take that down a notch.) We’re as smart as our better paid friends in other professions. The work we do matters. While donations are going down, global interest in museums seem a boom industry. People need us to lead the much needed healing that will need to come. And we will be able to help guide that. But perhaps, we’ll find in our 40 days in our deserted places a different way out, a way that makes this work not so precarious and not so hard. Perhaps our future will be brighter. Luckily many of us now have the time to think that future into a reality.

For now we can only do this alone, together. Let’s find ways to connect. Ed Rodley (with Koven Smith) have a wonderful idea, a global drinking about museums. I’m leading #MuseumGames with Mar Dixon, and we’re here to help you do games and hope you’ll join our weekly games.

2. I invite you to take to every platform you have to advocate for financial resources for our sector and org. Be the look so many dads are on FB. Keep up the story and make it personal. I wrote something and I got scores of likes, but other people's shares of it had fewer. Why? Bc my own friends and family like me, and are liking the message bc of me. Your dad doesn’t know me and could care less about becoming a member of a museum in Ohio.

 3. Let’s start a thread of resource documents. I’m going to start with mine about closures, with a caveat...PLEASE update reopen dates and delete out of date info. It will help all of us understand what our peer's most recent communications on their plans is. These dates will be changing. Let’s make the doc a living document to help us make informed decisions. Then go to twitter and add other useful resources to the feed.

4. Finally, here is a call for submissions that can help everyone:
Call for Participants: Museum Digital COVID-19 Research Study
We are living through history. Around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic is reshaping society. When Americans began practicing "social distancing" and following orders to shelter-in-place, museums and cultural organizations moved quickly to cease public visitation. But even as our institutions closed their physical doors, we have opened digital windows. We have adopted online tools to continue delivering on our missions, serving our communities, and engaging our audiences.

To document the beginning of this new chapter, professionals from across the sector have begun collaborating on a cross-institutional study. The working title of this research is "Effects of COVID-19 on the social and digital media of American Museums." The objectives are to create a record of this moment to inform planning for future emergencies, and document emerging practices.

This research will collect and aggregate metrics from standard digital reporting tools, then report on the trends uncovered. We will examine a variety of interactions such as web traffic, searches, video views, downloads of learning resources and kids content, virtual tour visits, and social media sentiment. This project follows a previous cross-institutional study on the motivations of museum website visitors. (Link:

Right now, we are building the cohort. We seek cultural institutions of all sizes, with collaborators of varied job titles across digital, social, education, curatorial, and marketing. While our focus will primarily be on US-based organizations, international organizations are welcome to contribute.

Express your interest in this research via the sign-up form. Please join us. (Link: