Tuesday, March 17, 2020

We've Gotten This Far

This month, I’d planned to have a celebration of the fellow people in museums, including your coworkers and colleagues you’ve never worked with. I set up some questions, and emailed people around the field. Then, a pandemic descended. In an odd way, it turned out to be an exemplar of what I was thinking of when I thought of the importance of colleagues I’ve never worked with.

As perhaps everyone knows, there is a virus actively propagating in every community in the country. The previous sentence is not hyperbolic. It is a public health crisis, and it is real. In this time when convenings have become treacherous, museums, zoos, and aquariums, as a collective, possess much of the affordable public space in the world. Their audiences also skew heavily toward the highest risk group for the infection.  

Last week, many in leadership understood we as a field could make the choice to help our community. Unlike franchise companies with a home office and national outposts, museums don’t necessarily have national resources to help them make choices like if they should close during “unprecedented times”. At the same time, arts and culture employs 4 times more people than the coal industry. Closing museums could have real impact on visitors but also strongly impacts on the economy.

Faced with such choices, museums did an amazing thing. They started calling each other, directors to directors, and front of house people to front of house people. Late last week, I was hearing from people around the globe with their concerns and their solutions. I reached out to contacts for work at home policies and email procedures. I heard multiple managers talking about how to lead from afar. The social media folks were in full-on energizer bunny mode behind the scenes.

We were all faced with some of the realest decisions of our careers, and we decided it’s better to do this one together. The shared google doc of closures blew up around Thursday afternoon, and in looking at it, I thought, maybe for the first time in my career, we are saving lives. The choice to close wasn’t easy. I read directors note after director’s note on websites about tough choices and challenging decisions. Our sector might employ large numbers but our budgets aren’t like the Microsoft and Google’s of the world. But, even in the face of challenge, museums made this choice.

For those of you reading it, much of what I said above is not news. I’m mostly telling that part of the story to set up this statement of gratitude. Thank everyone who helped us collectively make this choice. I thank everyone who worked on the many shared documents that helped us construct our public statements. I thank every person who shared how they were going to handle this crisis with our community. I thank all of you on social who shared honestly, and unsparingly, how your management was handling this. And, I particularly thank my peers in #musesocial; we’re a tough, funny breed. Despite being part of many museum committees and shared experiences, I never felt as much like a global field as last week. We were all in it together, sharing resources and trying our best. 

I point this out, because we all know our sector is at the beginning of something with this situation. I used to think of our field as a collective that cares for the past to share with the present in order to make a better future. And, I still that, certainly. But our future is spreading out in front of us as many divergent paths. If only museum professionals got to choose the fork ahead. Instead, the choices will be made by our donors and patrons, by our civic bodies and government offices. The future of museums is not just in our hands. I think everyone in this sector can fight the good fight. Everyone should show up at their Zoom meetings in ball gowns or pjs, putting in a solid day’s work. We should all help each other weather this storm. We should amplify the quiet voices and share the successes amidst our unfortunate circumstances. And we should take time away from this insanity. We should prioritize wellness. I say to all of us in our sector: You've done a good job. You've survived some tough moments. You're going to be okay.

But this is not a fight for us alone. We in our sector are not going to come out of this through our efforts alone. No social campaign alone will ensure the future of museums (#musesocial is good but come one). This fight is one that our communities will need to make with and for us. We’ve closed our doors for their benefit, and now society will hopefully be alongside us when we triumphantly open again.

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