Thursday, May 28, 2020

Empathy-Informed Balance in the Age of Coronavirus and Beyond

Some Internet People say some that sparks something in your brain. Some Internet People strike the flint every time. Ellice Engdahl is one of those internet people for me. Every thoughtful medium post and every considered tweet, they also get me thinking. I will say since noticing her online, I've since met her. So, she isn't just Internet People, I assure you. But, I hope this blog post will get you following her. Once you feel the spark, over and over, you'll know what I mean.

Author: Ellice Engdahl

When Seema asked me to write a post “taking stock of the industry,” I started to run through all the things that have been bouncing around my mind since the world changed. There were many, covering the personal and the professional (which, as this community knows well, is also personal), but I kept looking for some elusive grand unified theory to tie them all together. At last it came to me: balance, informed by empathy.

It’s human at times of great upheaval to want to just react, moving all the way to one side of the spectrum on any given decision. Even in physics, every action has an equal and opposite reaction, right?  But I’d argue that the best way to proceed is the middle path. Cultural institutions aren’t always the best at this—we are often all in or all out.

But the world is in a different place now than it was just a few months ago. We’re all starting to see the gaps and fragility in institutions and systems we may foolishly have believed were rock-strong, or at least unlikely to be tested so vigorously. A recent episode of the podcast On Being discussed how people who’ve encountered deep suffering lose the ability to distance themselves from suffering in others, quoting Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart:
“This kinship with the suffering of others, this inability to continue to regard it from afar, is the discovery of our soft spot, the discovery of bodhichitta. Bodhichitta is a Sanskrit word that means “noble or awakened heart.” It is said to be present in all beings. Just as butter is inherent in milk and oil is inherent in a sesame seed, this soft spot is inherent in you and me.”

If this is true, multiple months into this pandemic, we may all have discovered our latent noble heart.  In coming weeks, months, and even years, we should use our bodhichitta to move us forward in a balanced way. Here are a few of the ways we might try this, to behoove us both during the current crisis and beyond it.

·         Find the balance between managing your budget and taking care of your staff. Megan Smith incisively covered the sad state of staffing in the museum industry pre-coronavirus, as well as her fears for staffers post-coronavirus, in a previous post for Museum 2.0, so I won’t belabor this one. We clearly need to find the balance between keeping our institutions financially viable and treating our workforce as it deserves to be treated. This wasn’t easy before and it will be even harder now, but as attention to labor concerns increases and our understanding of who “essential workers” really are shifts, now is the time.

·         Strike a balance between “real” value and perceived value. Which staff now seem the most critical to your institution? Is it the same ones you thought it was before the pandemic? Who isn’t laid off, furloughed, or let go? Which planned projects seem worth the staff time and dollars you had allocated to them, and which don’t? Are you just setting these aside with the idea of returning to them all later, when funding is available, or is a larger re-evaluation merited? What really moves your institution forward, and what is unnecessary whiz-bang?

·         Establish a fair balance between the global state of emergency and individual professional concerns. It’s easy in these unprecedented times to be willing to set aside your “normal” professional concerns—professional development, say, or treatment at your institution that doesn’t seem fair or equitable. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t apply some sensitivity, given the scenario we all find ourselves in, but now is not the time to be unnecessarily selfless or accommodate away fair treatment—especially for marginalized groups and women, who are often quick to give things up for the greater good, or let them go because accommodation seems like the only option for career advancement. We should all be giving back now, in whatever ways we can, but the burden of selflessness shouldn’t fall on the same shoulders it always does. This goes both for yourself and for those around you, who likely need your support now more than ever.

·         Balance your assumptions and your audience’s needs. I’m finding it interesting how often lately I hear people talking about what they personally need in this time (vis-à-vis digital content, virtual experiences, physical safety, comfort, etc.) as if that is what everyone needs. The old “people don’t want x, they want y” declaration by an oblivious product manager or development team is a long-standing bugaboo against which ideas like user personas, co-created content, and design thinking have fought back. Still, we should keep at the front of our minds that right now, human needs and wants vary as widely as ever—if not more widely—and your museum shouldn’t take for granted that it knows what will work for everyone. Make some assumptions, but prove those out by asking your audience(s) and examining their reaction to what you’re doing.

·         There must be a balance between your mission and your messaging. This is a corollary to the above: What parts of your mission match up to what your audience(s) really need right now? What parts don’t? If you are communicating without doing this analysis, you run the risk of appearing tone-deaf. Bring your bodhichitta to your brand.

·         Reassess the balance between slick-and-produced and real-and-authentic. This is a corollary to the above corollary: In an era where we are all becoming accustomed to seeing the bookshelves, bedrooms, children, and pets of our coworkers and public figures alike, I’m hoping we’ll reassess how much fit-and-finish is truly needed to get our institutional messages across. Sometimes quick-and-dirty does the job better than a slick puff piece ever could.

·        Balance conscientious preparation with agility. It’s been informative to see the range of museum responses to a world in which people cannot physically visit our campuses. Some museums have had robust digital programs for years, and pivoted easily (or seemingly easily) to a digital-only presence; others have not made digital a priority and are scrambling to adjust; and then there’s every degree in-between. It’s hard to ding any cultural institution for not preparing for a future so few of us saw coming, but there’s always been a need to pivot when unexpected things happen. Right now, we have to continue to prepare for the future we anticipate, but also constantly readjust and switch things up as the world changes around us. One lesson I think we’ve all learned (or had reiterated): Having fundamental documentation of your collections and your physical space opens up near-infinite possibilities to build upon. (See the note above about what moves you forward vs. whiz-bang.)

At the risk of sounding like the hippie-at-heart that I am, I think using our newly-awakened hearts to bring balance to our institutions has never been more important—or more possible.  Let’s do it.

Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford, where she manages ongoing collections digitization work and facilitates storytelling on the web. She knows from experience that life is damned hard, so spends a lot of time thinking about how to make it better for herself and others. You can find random thoughts from her on Twitter and Medium.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Do they “get it” now? The value of #musesocial and #musetech in the era of COVID-19

Lori is one of those people you'll never forget meeting. If I needed someone to help me take over a small country or plan a giant party, I'd like her on my side. Or rather, I'd be glad to be on her side. She's a force, full of energy, and excitement. But, like the best of high-energy people, she's also intensely supportive and collaborative. In a field where we often work on our own, in isolation, people who are proactive about connecting constructively with others can feel rare. I'm thrilled that this co-conspirator is someone I know--and someone who is willing to share her ideas here.

By Lori Byrd-McDevitt
After a decade spearheading the social media presence at the world’s largest children’s museum, Lori now co-owns her agency 1909 DIGITAL where she helps others with their digital strategy. She founded the Museum Social Media Managers Facebook Group as well as the MCN Social Media SIG, and she currently is behind MCN’s social channels. She is an adjunct in JHU’s museum studies faculty.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the value of the digital museum sector over the past month. From the second that museum doors started closing to the public, it was an ah-ha moment—“We were made for this. It’s our time to shine. Let’s do this.” But something that’s so obvious to me isn’t necessarily so obvious to those decision-makers in the C-suite. Or it’s taken for granted when you make it look so effortless. Consider too that it’s not easy to articulate this value for those who are in just do it, because you’re awesome at it. 

It’s been keeping me up at night, the issue of finding a way to concisely illustrate how you’re impacting—even saving—your museums during this actual crisis scenario. Okay fine, if I’m being honest, I’ve had to be consoled after being found crying over the matter on more than one occasion. “What’s really wrong?” I was asked. “I just want to save my friends’ jobs. Things are moving too fast. I’m not doing enough.” Sounds dramatic, I know. But it’s honestly how I feel.

I had to let the “fix this now! *stomp* stomp*” idea go, or I’d drive myself insane. Boards and CEOs that are going to make quick decisions about layoffs and furloughs wouldn’t change their minds because of a blog post or a whitepaper I wrote tomorrow. Organizations who are unfortunately so fiscally fragile that they permanently layoff staff a week after closing, or who have poor leadership who wouldn’t even think to cut C-suite salaries before getting rid of jobs,—these are not my audience. Sharing the immensity of the value of #musesocial and #musetech is a long game, and it’s one meant for the smart leaders who will listen as they’re making tough decisions in the months ahead.

Let’s unpack all of this, shall we?

Fact #1: You stepped up, epically. 
When museum doors closed, those behind the museum websites and social channels stood up and said, “We got this.” Who made that happen? You guys did. In whatever way made sense for your organization, whether it was big or small. Whether you had a lot of power, or if you had only a little bit of power and had to push through a lot of internal politics to do a tiny did it.

A helpful thing to do:
Don’t forget that. Don’t forget that you and your team were the superheroes when your supervisors and CEOs take credit. Don’t forget it when others forget it, either.

Fact #2: It matters to people. 
Yesterday feels like a month ago and last week feels like a year ago. The popular quarantine “thing” changes by the millisecond. Don’t worry about that. Know that the thing you made, and the things you continue to make, matter to your audiences. Whether it’s local interest or a specific niche. Also, think about the big picture. Museums have made waves. Check out any of the national and international press about museum technology and social media. You’re all contributing to that. Whether or not virtual museum tours are as “cool” as baking bread at home this week. What you’re doing matters.

A helpful thing to do: Don’t forget to take a breath and capture your metrics. Look at the full context of your social media engagement and what is different about now and typical content.

Fact #3: You share the love.
Beyond freely sharing your organization’s beauty, humor, and history with the world, you’ve also shared your learnings with one another. You’ve taken the time out of your head-spinning busy days to respond in a Basecamp, Twitter, or Facebook thread about a timely technical topic. You’ve contributed to a webinar, whether as a guest or a chat participant. Perhaps you’ve been interviewed about a campaign to share behind-the-scenes tips, or you’ve blogged about it on your own. This information-sharing is invaluable at a time when reinventing the wheel would truly be a detriment to our field. 

A helpful thing to do: If you’re participating in these community discussions, make sure your superiors know that you’re showing initiative and value in this way. Whether it’s sharing information or seeking it.

Fact #4: We must document it. 
Look around you. This time is historic. You know this in the sense that many of you are asking your communities to virtually contribute content (side note: another way you’re providing value!) It’s also a watershed moment for our sector. You have become the epicenter of content flow; our platforms are the necessity for colleagues to stay relevant. For years you’ve fought to be taken seriously alongside other departments, and you’ve now risen to the occasion and knocked it out of the park. We can’t let this moment pass without thoroughly documenting your efforts. It’s essential that we take the time to write case studies, gather metrics, capture screenshots. 

A helpful thing to do: Submit proposals to virtual conferences (like MCN!), even in the midst of uncertainty. Formally documenting your projects is so important. Don’t underestimate your contributions. It’s a tough time to submit proposals when museums have restricted budgets, but know that professional organizations are doing all they can to ensure the community can participate. 

And so, there’s not one answer here. Just as we’ve naturally been collaborating from day one, we’ll continue to collaborate day after day. Priorities will shift as inevitable furloughs and layoffs continue, but we’ll maintain our resourcefulness, humor, and creativity in spite of it all. When those museums suffering through staff reductions bounce back, we should be ready with resources to make it an easy decision to rehire, or newly hire, a digital team. Brilliant case studies can show them just what they’re missing out on. For those organizations thrifty and smart enough to maintain their #musesocial and #musetech staff during the crisis, I know this surely isn’t our only “time to shine.” It’s just the beginning of our blindingly sparkly reign as digital-first museums. 

Thursday, May 07, 2020

Covid-19 and Museum

As we are all making adjustments to living through a global pandemic I've tried to reach out more. As a Historic Interpreter for Telfair Museums, I would lead visitors through the Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarters on a 45 minute guided tour of antebellum Savannah history discussing politics and urban slavery.  When the Museum closed I was expecting the next few weeks to be different.  
When my institution first closed I decided to reach out to twitter for interaction. Normally I use twitter to follow to network and learn about how others are making changes in the field, expanding audiences, and the history we interpret.  Twitter is how I first learned about the #museumsarenotneutral and #museumsrespondtofurgusion (from Aleia Brown and Adrianne Russell) and ongoing conversations about transparency in hiring practices.  I knew that I would miss the social aspects of my job. As an interpreter, research and tours dominate my professional time, in this time of transition I’m eager to learn from this moment and what better way than by talking with people.
In my initial calls, I was interested in learning how others were coping. I was hoping to chat, discuss our emotions during this moment, vent if need be but mostly, be there for each other.  I felt like these connections would help us grow in this moment and if people were doing good work we wanted to share.  I felt like one on one of these conversations could be honest, supportive, and genuine in our feelings.  These created communities allows many of us to process this moment with each other.  
I set up digital lunches. I hoped, at this moment of many museum professionals working at home, that I could have some digital lunches.  I had these digital meetings with historians and museum professionals at various levels, specialties, and locations. Previously I had become interested in public history in Baltimore, a graduate student in North Carolina, and a professional in Savannah but my conversations expanded to NY, New Jersey, South Carolina, California and Tennessee.  We discussed our passion for history, art, and education. We mourned each other’s furloughs (mine arrived halfway into April), our different state’s response to this moment, and missing our favorite coworkers. We traded working at-home methods, streaming recommendations, and self-care tactics. When I talked to Sierra deGroot of the Poster House in NY, we did a full deep dive into cartoons from the 90s and early 2000s and where they are currently streaming.  We gave each other the minor assignments to watch a movie from our childhood (me Space Jam and her A Goofy Movie) to relax.  I saw and still see this ongoing need to connect as an opportunity to create a community to grieve with during this moment but to also help each other chill.  
Twitter, like all social media, allows me to curate my view of the outside world. I’ve been interested in how other institutions are handling this. Working in museums is a constant learning opportunity thus it is important to see who is being inventive at this moment. Who is taking risks in finding new and inventive ways to serve audiences? Who is serving the community’s needs? Who is explaining the complicated museum finances of what museums can and cannot do at this moment? The twitter account and collective art + museum transparency has been tracking in twitter thread and spreadsheet.  Seeing what museums are furloughing pro-union professionals, what museums are determined to keep going, and who is not planning on reopening.   These conversations have been bubbling up for a few years but this moment we’re looking at priorities of institutions.  Many of us find joy in the social media account of the National Cowboy Museum but isn’t also an example of bringing new voices to the table.  This moment leaves us open to connect through our love of this field and less serious things like cartoons This moment can be learning opportunity for many of us learning how good work can occur, how staff can be protected, and how history and art both soothes and protects us during national tragedies. But maybe more important we can learn is how to connect with each other.  With that connection, we can focus on each other.  So for other professionals working in museums, historic sites, national parks, and other places for public humanities I urge you to reach out to each other to strengthen the communities you are a part of.