Sunday, July 18, 2021

Six Things I Learned from the Pandemic

The start of a fiscal year for me holds the same promise as new day planners and brand-new shoes, and at the same time, the trepidation of blank pages and wide-open stages. I love the idea of planning and doing great things, but there is also the fact that you must plan and do great things.

This start of a fiscal year, though, is quite different than previous ones, I’d suggest. We’re a bit like the tiny mammals looking out onto the land after the destruction of the dinosaurs. Life did go on, of course, and in fact proliferated, as evidenced by me sitting here typing this mediocre metaphor. I use it though, because so many of us feel the field has been smashed. There is no denying our field has seen cataclysmic change. And we need to be honest about how many people are not in the field right now, due to this change. I’m like a lot of lifelong museum pros, achy and exhausted, excited and hopeful, nervous and jaded. All the feelings are in there, rattling around my brain.

While we may never have exactly the same confluence of events that caused the field-wide problems in 2020, it doesn’t mean we can’t learn. Finding some growth can help us, if nothing else, feel like it wasn’t all for naught.

As we pick up the pieces, which ones shall we keep?

1.       Working fast is not bad: Museums take 5 years to plan an exhibition. These long-time lines encourage deep research and careful publication. There is value in allowing time for ideas. But we learned that short timelines have different value. They can help museum respond to current moments. They can also allow museums to be freed of having to do a catalog or having to create deep content on the web. Balancing both could give museums the best of both approaches.

2.       Digital is an audience: Many museum leaders see digital as basically a way to entice people to see the real thing, in their mind. In a museum culture that so often wants to see itself apart from plebian concerns, I find this model of digital amusingly transactional. It’s not unlike the way stores do product placements with influencers to get you to purchase a product.  In 2020, many people did digital as an end itself. They didn’t think of it as subsidiary to a visit. And guess what, they gained new audiences. Those audiences may never visit. That’s okay.

3.       ‘That’s not how we do it’ is made up: Museum norms have been built up over decades. We don’t do many things, just because we don’t do them. We don’t show community art in our galleries, because we’re a museum. We don’t let people draw from the collection, because we’re a museum. We don’t give away art supplies, because we’re a museum. In this year, in order to stay viable, museums across the country did many of these things we just don’t do. And the field not only survived but thrived. Which norms can we eschew?

4.       Many hands: Many museums had to pivot and spin and get real dizzy this year. Some of us figured out spreading out the work, and the authority, made these fast changes easier. Leaders who limped to the finish line with a shred of sanity likely found ways to share authority. I’m truly thrilled when colleagues solve things and drop me off the email chains. My job isn’t to manage every action; it’s to ensure everyone’s actions are in keeping with our strategy.

5.       Work is about Outcomes: I do not care where and when my team does their work. It doesn’t matter if they’re on their desk, in Greenland, or on the moon. As long as they show up at events and meetings, and the work gets done, why should I determine their work process? Each human is different. Expecting people to all work the same is based on our historical labor frameworks, born of the industrial revolution. Innovation won’t occur by setting up systems based on old ways of thinking.  

6.       Community is not just a buzzword: Community is coded language and usually racially and socio-economically fraught. Museum professionals often used it when they couldn’t say the qualifiers they are thinking. But, in 2020, it became all the people we’d like to connect with. It became an imperative instead of smoke screen. Museums became vaccination spaces, food banks, and tutoring sites. Museums became the community spaces they’d been claiming to be all these years. It’s this last lesson which could be the foundation for a better field. Will we actually make this happen? 

Have more ideas? Share your lessons with me on Twitter @artlust. And now for something completely different:

Do’s in Museums ##museummoment##internationalmuseumday##museumtok##museumtiktok

♬ original sound - Akron Art Museum
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