I started to write this on the plane heading home from New Orleans, but didn’t finish before the events of this week. I was planning to work on it on Wednesday but woke up feeling like these, maybe, weren’t the most important things to be thinking about. But then I read Rob Weisberg’s Medium post about the conference—and especially his thoughts on the same topic at the beginning—and decided to take a page and some inspiration from his book. The community, the work, our practice, the empathy and support that we have for each other in the MCN family is, I think, even more important now.
Now that I’m back home, #MCN2016 is starting to pass into the rear view mirror, though it is very much still on my mind. One thing about being on the planning end of a conference is that your relationship to the conference is a bit different. I found myself thinking about some things differently (did the schedule turn out as we’d hoped? Do people seem to be enjoying things? Did we describe things clearly?), or thinking about things that I might not have thought about at all in previous years. This was my sixth MCN, and while every MCN is its own thing with its own flavor and experience, this one, for me, was a very different– and very special–experience.
It was really fantastic to see so many of the things we’d talked about and planned come to fruition (and there are many contributors to that we, from the program committee to the board, the SIGs, and the indefatigable conference managers. And, of course, the two amazing women with whom I had the privilege of co-chairing the program—Suse Cairns and Trish Oxford). One of the first discussions we had with each other as co-chairs, and then had with the entire program committee, was the question of whether we needed to have a theme for the conference, and if so, what should it be. There was, initially, a broad sense that maybe themes weren’t all that useful—that the sessions and themes of conferences didn’t always line up, that it was only rarely a major factor in whether someone decided to attend or present at a conference. A turning point in that discussion came when one program committee member piped up to say that the theme, and its applicability to their work, may not be a key factor in their deciding to go to a conference, but it was a key factor in how they made an argument to their supervisor and their institution for supporting their attendance. We started thinking differently about the theme—if this is something that helps people attend then what could we do to help them to make that case?
Trish suggested that the program committee write haikus about MCN as a starting point. The resulting poems were funny, silly, poignant, and thought-provoking, and they eventually led to the discussion that sparked the resulting theme: The Human-Centered Museum. It may be that I was over-attuned to it, having been a part of the process that got us to the theme, but I felt like I could see the theme everywhere in the conference—not just in the sessions and the topics that people were talking about, but in everyone’s interactions with each other.
One aspect of this year’s conference that I found most interesting was the appearance of Chatham House Rule in multiple sessions. (You can read more about Chatham House Rule here, but the short of it is that sessions under the umbrella of the Rule are safe spaces where the specific details—names, institutions, identifying features of a story—are not shared outside the room). I hadn’t encountered this at previous conferences—I may have just not participated in sessions that happened—but it was part of a fair number of sessions this time around. For me, this felt like a noticeable shift. Conferences are a great place to talk about our achievements—and we need spaces in which to do this. Being able to share about wins with colleagues is positive in so many ways. I can’t count the number of times that listening to a panel talking about the amazing projects they are working on sent me off in a frenzy of inspiration, thirsty to set my own ideas into motion. And having a place to be able to crow a bit about things that worked out is another kind of inspiration—hey, we did this!—that can keep you pursuing the next step.
And in between those sessions about wins and achievements and next steps for projects we have all had those more private sessions over dinner or drinks or sitting on the hallway floor with those friends and colleagues you only get to see once or twice a year, who work in museums (but maybe not your museum), who give you that safe space to talk about the things that don’t make it to the panel presentation: setbacks, failures, stresses, worries. And those conversations are often just as inspiring as the ones that send you into a creative frenzy. These are both part of professional (and personal) self care.
To have so many sessions conducted in the safety of Chatham House Rule to me is the most human-centered approach to the Human-Centered Museum. We all have wins. We all have failures. We all need to be able to talk about both. We all need a space to talk about what we’re scared of, what hurts us, what inspires us, what excites us, what infuriates us, what makes us feel impotent, what makes us feel empowered—without fear. Being able to do this acknowledges that our institutions are not just abstract entities, but are made of up individuals, of people, of humans, and that our community of practice can provide support for all of the individuals that make up that community—when we soar, when we stall, when we crash—not only in those private moments with friends, but with our community in conference sessions is something that I felt most proud of this year.
One of the things about being on the organizing end of things is that I wasn’t able to attend nearly as many sessions as I would have liked. Of the sessions I was able to attend there were several that really made an impact on my thinking, and that I will be thinking about for a long time to come. All were led by amazing people that I am grateful to count as friends and co-conspirators (in so many ways).
Picture by Essie Lash
I had the pleasure of chairing Rob Weisberg’s session, It Doesn’t Have to be Toxic: When Empathy is your Workplace Secret Weapon. (You can read Rob’s own round up of MCN here). Rob took on workplace toxicity by walking us all through his last three years of changing the process by which labels get created at his institution. For many of us who work in museums just the word labels prompts waves and waves of anxiety, so to hear someone describe the slow, long game process of shifting workplace culture through the medium of the label process was kind of like listening to someone describe making a working time machine: it’s possible within the boundaries of the laws of physics, but doesn’t seem like something that could actually happen in real life. This project is one that Rob has been working on for as long as I’ve known him, and I’ve heard him talk about bits and pieces of it over the years (including in our recent letter series for CODE WORDS), but this was the first time I’d heard it laid out, step by step, with a big picture outcome. It was amazing. There were so many aspects of this talk that I appreciated, starting first and foremost with honesty. He was clear about this not being a single-action solution. He was clear about it being a long process. He was clear about it not being all unicorns and rainbows. He was clear about it being hard work.
But it is work so worth doing. We will have setbacks and we will screw up and we won’t necessarily get to the dream place that we imagine, but one of the most important things I got from it was that even in situations where we feel impotent and unable to fix the problem, we can always change our piece of it. For a talk about a process that lots of people in museums experience as powerlessness it was amazing how empowering it felt.
Rob also led an unconference session about museum blogging, which was a great push for me to remember to get back to this blogging thing. Also, he brought beignets.
Self-care and improving the workplace culture were themes of many of the sessions this year. One session on this theme that really stood out for me was Sustaining Innovation: Tips and Techniques to Keep Momentum in your Organization. Emily Lytle-Painter, Douglas Hegley, Jeffrey Inscho, Annelisa Stephan, and Greg Albers led this active discussion session with breakouts during which a very packed room of museum professionals shared ideas about how to deal with burnout, toxicity, and roadblocks. There were some wonderful ideas that came out in the discussion. One of my favorites from a member of the group I was sitting in: make a point to compliment the work of at least one colleague in your institution every day. I love the idea of this as a daily goal and the way that it turns your attention to the positive things that happen around us all the time.
Trish Oxford’s panel on vulnerability in museums– The Power of Vulnerability in Museums –is another session that will be sticking with me for years to come. Trish started with a video that laid out why vulnerability is so, so hard in professional life. (And life in general, really).
We often talk about empathy in museums, but we rarely talk about vulnerability. Empathy is an active practice, and is an incredibly important part of our work in museums, but it is also something that we practice with control. It is a conscious process and practice, but it is one where we often set the parameters and hold the reigns. Vulnerability is a practice that requires us to relinquish control, and to trust that those to whom we leave ourselves open will be kind, will be generous, and will be empathetic toward us.
The panel was set up with a game structure—questions were assigned to each of the panelists to answer throughout the session, and audience members joined into the discussion. The discussants were brave and open—vulnerable—in their sharing. You can read about the structure and the question on Trish’s blog post about the panel here. In her list of questions there were three that really jumped out for me, and which I plan to bring into my thinking and practice at the museum. Two are related:
- How has shame gotten in the way of change?
- What does shame look like in museum work?
Shame is a driver of so many of the choices we make. How do we create environments in which mistakes and shame are decoupled?
- How has silence been used as a solution to a problem in your experience?
I see two questions in this question. One is about how I can work on holding back and letting silence work as a solution in my own practice. The other is the flipside: how has silence contributed to a problem? When has silence given cover to problems?
I also got to hear Stephen Boyd discuss institutional voice in social media practice: Institutional Voice: What Are We Trying to Say? (full disclosure: we work together) Steve urged us to recognize that museums aren’t monoliths. They are made up of individuals with different points of view, with different voices, and that it is okay for the voice on social media to reflect those many voices.
He then raised a really important question—one that I would love to see discussed more often:
Do we always want social media interaction to translate into visiting the physical museum?
So… do we? How do the (un-discussed) assumptions about this question affect how we frame what we do, the way in which we do the work itself, and the choices that we make?
He also asked a question that I think we all need to ask in our institutions:
Do people expect the experience of the museum itself to match the social media voice?
I don’t know the answer, but it’s a really important question to ask our visitors. How might the answer affect our work? How would it change our work? How would it shift how we think about social media? About labels? About other aspects of the visit? About our visitors, full stop?
There were so many moments over the course of the conference that were just wonderful. The Ignite talks at the House of Blues were fantastic.
The karaoke was, as always, epic. (Huge shout out to Koven, who managed to find the best den of room karaoke in a city that appears to be 100% pure bar karaoke).
We had a very fun, jam-packed first timers’ session.
We even got to learn all about the #jiasszz.
I got to see so many incredible people whom I do not get to see nearly enough, but who rejuvenate me whenever I see them. AND I got to meet new people and make new friends, and have great conversations. So, thank you, dear friends, for being so awesome, I can’t begin to express my gratitude for having you all in my life. The MCN community is amazing. The people in this community are amazing. The support, the love, the inspiration that run through every corner of this group are important touchstones for all of us to connect with during dark days, and for all of us to share, both inside and outside of our institutions, through the work we do.