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.