Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Hello Museum World!

Hello World! Or maybe hello museum world! I feel a bit like a child walking around in someone else’s, slightly bigger shoes taking over this wonderful blog. The metaphor certainly works in terms of filling big shoes. But, I like that metaphor for another reason. Children see play and imagination as their job. Filling big shoes isn’t scary; it’s something to enjoy and pursue with zeal. I am taking this challenge in that way—a wonderful, playful exploration. I hope you join me on this romp (and pick me up if I wobble). This month, I wanted to share some stories from my last two years as a strategy and content consultant. (Previously, I had worked at the same museum for 17 years.) I went from lots of change in one place to help many places with their change. And, while over the next few months, I'll share things about me, I wanted to write today about the field.

So, when you visit more than 300 museums, parks, and historic sites, what do you learn? I thought I would kick off my tenure around here by sharing stories and reflections about my visits. This week, I wanted to start with us, museum and cultural workers. In these last two years, I have spoken to hundreds of colleagues around the world, both in person and on social. I’ve learned so much from all of you, and a little about us as a field. Here are my top five reflections:

1. We Care: I know this might seem obvious, but it is worth calling this out. We are a field of people who truly care about our work. We are not in this for the 9-5, and most of us work well beyond the average work week. This is a hard point to illustrate with a story because every story I will share for the next few weeks is about the care we put into the work. Each label, I assure you, is a testament to the care of scores of museum workers. Each time a front walk is plowed in the snow, each time someone helps a visitor find their way to a gallery, each time you see a funny social media post. The care we put into our work is the fabric of this field. It makes me immensely proud to be one of you at every one of my visits.

2. Front of House is Hard Work: While I did gallery teaching for many years, for most of my career, I’ve had a desk and a phone in non-public space. A portion of our sector lives their work lives in the public realm. These front of house workers, including visitor experience staff and security guards, are often the ones taking our missions to the people.

I was so impressed by the front of house workers. On a very hot day last month, I tromped into the Dyckman Farm House in Manhattan, glistening from the heat and the trek, to see a smiling gardener invite me to sit down in the shade. Another time, I walked into MASS MOCA with my two elementary-age daughters. A guard knelt down to tell my daughters there were some interesting works in this gallery that could be touched (and he pointed out everything else is look only). He spoke to them as humans (not with a baby voice), and he seemed like he was happy to see us. I attempted to do some of the interactives in the National Museum of Scotland with wonderful encouragement from the education staff there. Let’s just say my pedal power is not so powerful, but I felt supported and encouraged. Overall, our front of house workers very often put our field’s best face forward.

3. Some of Our Staff are Listening: It’s hard to remember a time before Museum 2.0, and Nina’s advocacy for interactivity in our gallery spaces. So many museums have taken up the charge to make their spaces engaging on different levels. And while interactivity is up in general, I was particularly impressed by the number of museums who are proactive about visitor feedback and prototyping.

I saw places where museums were being transparent about how they do their work. My favorite, perhaps, was the prototype space at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle. As they were readying for a huge revamp of their spaces, they turned a gallery into a prototype space. My favorite little section was a place where people could vote on the styles of labels. My children particularly loved watching a technician/ scientist work on processing an avian taxidermy sample. Different strokes, perhaps. But, both of these sections were drawing back the curtain, if you will, on the work of museums. I wholeheartedly believe museums seem more vital to visitors when they know we are a changing, evolving field. When we show we are growing, we invite people to see our changes.

4. Some of our Staff still Needs to Listen: As a field, we still have so much growth. Take labels, for example. Many of our labels seem like the text that time forgot. They are written for a populace that is largely non-existent, people without Google on their phones and infinite attention spans. Now, I say this as someone who has written scores of labels and taught others to write them. I have definitely written some poor labels in my life. (And I will be writing much more deeply about labels in an upcoming post).

But for the sake of this list, I use labels as an example of a place where we as a field have not done a good job of evolving. There is nothing in our work that is so sacred as to be above scrutiny. Being critical of every element of our work, and every expectation, can only improve our practices.

5. Our Staff is Taxed: I wrote a book ages ago now about Self-Care. It started as an act of self-care myself. I was tired intellectually, and I needed to find a better way of being in this field. I was so glad other people liked the book. But, in writing that book, I also found people came to me about their problems. I was happy to listen (still am), but I realized something was fundamentally wrong in our field. My book was an individual helping other individuals. Certainly, caring for yourself is important.

But I think we as a field need to think about why so many of our professionals are feeling taxed. As I said above, our visitors might not see this exhaustion when they walk in. But burnout leads to job turnover. Losing trained people is like throwing away money. I don’t have the answer, but I have been trying to find systemic ways to embed wellness into the ways we run our museums.

In conclusion for this week, we are doing good work--you are doing good work. It can be hard, and often underappreciated, but it makes a difference. Next week, I'll talk about my reflections on how visitors seem to feel in our galleries.

N.B. In an upcoming post, I'd love to think about guards. If you have been a guard, ever, consider taking this survey. I'll make anonymized data available to anyone who asks.

I'll be checking comments, obviously. But, I'm easy to find on social @artlust on twitter and @_art_lust_ on IG.
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