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.

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