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. 

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