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:

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.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

The People at Work

I had something different planned for today. I suspect many of you could say the same.

COVID-19, the non-catchy short-form for CoronaVirus, ran roughshod over most of our days, hiding in emails and sneaking into almost all our plans. Abundance was in full effect in the corporate emails that filled my box. Caution was something I even found myself typing all afternoon.

This month's topic was about the people who make up the ecosystem of work. Last week, I rambled about how work is a system. This week, I thought I'd share the stage with others to hear their ideas about their colleagues. And, I will.

But, COVID-19 gave a useful coda to last week's post. If anything shows the interconnectedness of human behavior, infectious disease certainly can. With the near-global diffusion of cell phones, there are very few adults who don't know there is a virus on the loose. Collective meetings are ideal places for the virus to proliferate. People holding collective gathering spaces are working hard to make the best call about how to proceed. As one site moves to cancel, it sets into motion even more cancellations. The decision-making is happening like a Rube Goldberg, one event after another. And, we are all working through our choices together. There are probably plenty of workers right now trying to make these tough decisions, maybe even putting their health at risk. I appreciate them. Though, I also appreciate all the workers who are doing particularly hard tasks, keeping public spaces clean for example.

And, then onto the people at work...this whole month's topic started, because of a colleague. Early in the morning, I usually chat with a fellow early bird at my office. We were recently discussing some fairly banal, but important, issues about construction near my office. I've spent most of my working life at the mercy of city and state road construction, as Ohio seems to always been in repair ;>. As someone who doesn't always listen to local traffic, I was thankful for his insight. Much later, I realized most of us at work have these sorts of off-handed interactions with people--not exactly about work but incredibly important to your ability to do your job.

We often spend more time with peers than friends or family. They can make your lives more fun, easier, or livelier. They can certainly sink your day or make it shine. While I often read about manager-subordinate interactions, I don't often hear about peer interactions. Enjoy some tales that illustrate some of the ways peers make our workplaces worth it. 

What is something you learned from a peer? 
From time to time, step back and take distance from your projects, having a bird’s eye perspective helps to understand dynamics and situations that being immersed in the work don’t.  Amparo Leyman Pino 

“’Always assume goodwill.’  It's actually one of the first things that Dr. Gretchen Sorin, Director and Distinguished Professor at the Cooperstown Graduate Program, told my cohort in our first week of our MA program.  That advice has served me incredibly well over the last seven years, and it frames how I try to approach problems at my museum.  We're all on the same team, and we're just facing obstacles and doing our best to overcome them.  It also buys a lot of credibility among my peers, I think--people are more willing to work with you when they know you'll always give them the benefit of the doubt if they make a mistake.”  Fred Gold

"My mentor gave me a simple, but profound piece of advice as I started my career: recognize the people who work with you and acknowledge them for who they are and what they're doing for the museum. I manage docents, and I make sure I thank them for their service as much as I can.  But that also extends to my professional colleagues, too.  I work with incredibly caring and talented people, and it's important to recognize how vital they are to their communities and the museum." Andrew Palamara

“While you may find yourself in situations beyond your control (or above your paygrade), you can always control how you respond. Let your actions bring good, impact change, and make clear what you stand for, wherever you are. I think about that affirmation e v e r y day. I've leaned on it when establishing boundaries at work, claiming agency as an emerging museum professional, figuring out what exactly work/life balance looks like... I hope it can bring others some moments of clarity and action, too!” Andrea Ledesma 

So what about you? What's something you learned from a peer? Tag me so I can add your thoughts to this month’s summary post @artlust on twitter, @_art_lust_ on IG, & @brilliantideastudiollc on FB. 

Tuesday, March 03, 2020

The Systems of Work

This month’s topic is about the systems of people who come together to make work happen.

I once sat next to a man who worked at a museum about transportation. I’d been starving, and we were being served a delicious hot lunch (Thank you Pennsylvania Museums Association.) As I stuffed my face, the person beside me shared some information about train schedules, routes, and systems. After I was sated, we moved into a conversation about flex work. He asked me about how I ensured honesty in my teams when I told them that I trusted them to work their hours (rather than micromanaging). Recently, I’ve been reflecting on that conversation often.

Complex, largely mechanical systems are easy to measure in terms of productivity and efficiency. The supply chain is itself a field because the way goods move through our global markets are at the core of our consumer society. There are also pretty easy ways to see when the supply chain has problems. If you don’t get a delivery of apples, you know something went wrong.

In museum systems, the product and the means of production are intellectual and invisible. Many forms of labor are hard to quantify. In an old job, my team was responsible for tours. If someone was sick, I’d find myself in the galleries giving a talk on “Animal Ceramics” as a moment’s notice. The original speaker might have spent 10 hours getting ready, and I took 10 minutes. Of course, as I said last month, I had a decade of experience to draw from, so the visitors still had a fine experience.
With the complexity of work, pain points often emerge that seem hard to fix. People feel as if, “I keep saying that and nothing happens.” These issues occur though because the underlying interrelationships aren’t clearly and critically considered. For example, let’s look at one of my favorite topics. Think of the times something breaks down. A change is made in a label, and maybe in the collections database, but neither of those systems is connected to the website. Some power visitor who pays their $50 checks the website, and then goes into the galleries, finding the error. She emails the director. The director doesn’t like having to sort through this particular type of challenge and sends it back to the curator, who says but I told them about the change. (Now before I go any farther, I made up this scenario—I don’t want any of my present or past colleagues to be implicated :>)

The above scenario is at its heart about systems. In museums, with our low budgets, we often don’t have automated systems and as such we make human workarounds that are often made on an individual or ad hoc level. For example, I know that the room will only be set up if I had a print floor plan to X person at X time. These Band-Aid solutions work fine until people leave or the system gets another change (like your organization implements a facilities request system that sends some floor plans to the facilities staff).

We fix the problem at hand rather than trying to solve the whole system that causes the problems. Why? Training is likely part of it. We’re all often trained in a specific field, but not in how to run a department that accomplishes the work of that field. Time is another. It takes months to critically interrogate how work gets done and why. And, the benefits of such a look of one’s internal systems are not usually seen in the short term.

But, why do this? For each other. Work is a group activity. It’s about the other people in the system (visitors and co-workers alike). Understanding how you do work and why can help the work get easier and more efficient. You can find yourself in a better place to work.