Tuesday, November 10, 2020

What Now? (pt. 2)

I wrote yesterday's post on the eve of the 2020 American Election. The whole country felt coiled up, tight with anticipation. I'm not sure anticipation is really the exact word. I feel as if there might be a German word that summarized the national emotional state on November 3. It would mean a combination of fear, anticipation, exhaustion, and horror. In fact, I suspect this emotional state is the only thing that brought Americans together on that day. 

I decided to post yesterday's piece, in relation to this one. Yesterday's post was an introspective one, long on ideas and short actionable advice.  Today, let's try to focus on actions. We've had helplessness foisted on us this year, with the pandemic. The lack of agency against coronavirus is frustrating. You're susceptible to so many other people's choices, and you have no idea if you're making the right choice when you get to make one. It's exhausting. 

To add to this, we find ourselves splintering like so much broken glass. We're red/ blue; mask/ no mask; science/ no science. We're this or that. Either/or. 

Museums are seeing such deep divides as well; the old order and the new one. The divisiveness is not conducive to moving forward. Imagine walking while doing the splits. But, how are we going  to be able to move forward? Well, the first is to have some really uncomfortable conversations. 

In fact, that's why I decided to post yesterday's comments. That probably felt a little hard for some people. You might say, but I know I'm white but I'm doing my best. I'd answer, I bet you are. It's just really hard, and it's going to get harder. We're not going back to the before. There is only going forward. So how are we going forward? Assessing our problems is a good place to start. Well, first, I think we'll need to assess what was wrong with the past. 

Here are some problems I see: 

  • Academia is our boogie man. We'd defer to the fear of not seeming academic whenever someone proposed shocking changes, like bullet points in labels. I truly believe learning and scholarship are the engines of museums. Curators, I assure you that your colleagues are not reading the labels to judge your intelligence. They're not reading your labels; my mom is. And, my mom just wants to know what she's looking at. (And, frankly, we should be thrilled someone is reading our labels, because that isn't even a given...) So, we spend all this time fearing we're "dumbing it down," when we don't really interrogate why we even think explaining and bringing everyone to the same level might be really smart for our field. 
  • We made small things really big--fearing even the smallest changes. Whenever I see something interesting in a museum, like a family guide done well or an interesting sign, I assume there were 100 meetings and at least one moment of an emotional outburst. This is because in museums we make the stakes very high for small things. Think about signage. Ever wanted to try a funny or off the wall sign at your museum? For most museums, that is really controversial work. But, those kinds of things only matter in the museum field. If or if you don't put up a sign, is completely inconsequential outside the field. And, in the end, it meant we didn't deal with the biggest problem; were we actually serving as much of society as we should. 
  • There is no right answer, but we often act like there is one. The hierarchical structure of museums often means highly credentialed people have more say. Those people often make decisions based on their training. As such, a certain "right" decision is seen as a given. For example, what is "allowed" to be hung in your main exhibit hall? Why is that what's allowed? Who decided? All those answers might be true, but there is probably a whole host of other right answers you're not thinking of. 
  • We built our present, though by bad building decisions. Many of the financial woes of our field are due to the large operating incomes we have due to building projects. Those building projects were well and good when we had the rental income to buoy us up. When that went, we found ourselves as a field financially sinking. 
  • Diversity. Oh, Diversity. You might refer to yesterday's post on this one. Underlying that post, you should have noticed a woman of color who is tired. For so long, this field has made people of color do their diversity work. It's exhausting. 
  • For the love of it is killing us. Most museum professionals need a graduate degree for their job that will make them so little money that they'll not be able to pay off that degree. They do it because they love the knowledge and the field. We're like buskers who went to Julliard, well-educated and performing for pennies. 
What are some of the problems you see? 

Now here is the important part. Let's get all these problems out there, and then let's start thinking about how to actually fix them. 
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