First, let me say that the Museum Computer Network’s 2016 conference was one of the most amazing I have ever attended. I arrived carrying the weight of some significant personal and professional exhaustion, and MCN, as it always does, revived me. My happy place the last two weeks has been mentally returning a New Orleans courtyard on the last day of the conference, drinking wine and listening to a band play obscure Oliver Nelson tunes while sharing laughter with some of my favorite people in the world.
I was glad for the recharge, because then the election happened.
I won’t belabor how awful this election was for me and for so many around me; that has been done more meaningfully elsewhere. What I will say is that thinking about my work in museums (bear with me here) has helped me to process the election somehow. MCN is the election in miniature — the issues played out at a macro level lately in Europe and America are also playing out at a micro level in each of our museums. To attend MCN is to see the most progressive thought in museums on full display. To return to your museum after MCN is often, sadly, to see that thought destroyed in a million different ways. Attending MCN and then getting back to work is like an East Coast liberal watching the election results and suddenly remembering that Texas gets to vote, too.
Don’t get me wrong; I am absolutely committed to so much of what MCN stands for. As Johanna Koljonen so beautifully said, design is the opposite of tradition. We come to MCN to design the present and future of museums and I remain absolutely committed to doing that. However, this election now has me questioning whether the ways I approach that work are the right ones. Have I become so convinced of the rightness and justness of what we do that I’m not realizing that Texas gets to vote, too? Am I so focused on being right that I’ve stopped being smart? Are there better ways to win, even when I’m losing?
Two things have become clear to me since the election. The first is that having a person whose politics and policies I respected at the top made me complacent. That complacency caused me to underestimate how fragile the support for those policies were, and how quickly that support could decay. The second, related, revelation is that the left had effectively stopped doing the work — we pinned all of our hopes and dreams on having the right person at the top. We vote only in the Presidential elections, and not in the midterms. We are barely even aware of the local politics that ultimately determine so much of the shape of the place in which we live. We have stopped trying to create and sustain a political movement that can survive without support from the very top.
Compare this to the modern American conservative movement, which had it’s coming-out party with the (supposedly) disastrous Goldwater candidacy in 1964. Everyone predicted that the conservative movement was finished after that election, but they kept on organizing. That movement had less to do with having the right person at the top and more with having the right people everywhere. Conservatives put people into school board elections, into housing committees, into redistricting committees. Conservatives vote in midterm elections. Conservatives vote for a set of values, more than they do for a particular person. All this has allowed the movement to outlast multiple real and predicted catastrophes. I don’t mean to imply here that I side with conservative principles (I don’t), but I do have a lot of respect for the method by which the movement has remained a force in US politics, even through lean years like the post-Watergate 70s. I think those of us trying to effect change in museums can learn a lot here.
So think about this at your museum: where do you spend your capital? Are you building a movement, or are you just trying to sway your director? Spoilers: for most of us, it’s the second one. This is a problem because museums are dictatorships. They may be benign dictatorships, but museum staff usually derive no material benefits from the success or failure of an institution, nor do they have any say in who gets to be director. All that work you’ve done swaying that sympathetic director with the Instagram account? It’s out the window when the board decides to bring in someone with “more business experience.” The support for the progressive agenda you began implementing after coming home from MCN suddenly looks very fragile. If you have to win the election to win the day, you’ve already lost.
I’ve never thought about sustaining innovation and change at museums as being a coalition-building activity, but that’s basically what it has to be. For our work to outlast a given manager or director, we have to put in the work. We have to figure out the museum equivalent of getting our people on the school boards. We have to get at least a couple of our words into the mission statement. Get the right words into job descriptions. Have a say in the interns you bring on. We have to vote in the midterms. Getting your director on board” is a nice-but-not-essential part of the process.
But we also have to be honest with ourselves about not reinforcing the dictatorship further down in the org chart. I was frustrated at the (apparent) arbitrariness of the decision-making above me early on in my career, but once I was suddenly in a position to make decisions unilaterally, I embraced that power. I became that which I beheld, but I figured it was okay because my cause was just. However, the (possible) rightness of my ends didn’t make the autocratic nature of the means any more right. My actions encouraged others to rally around me to make change happen rather than to take individual responsibility for that change. That’s not the right way to build a ground game, but everything about the autocratic culture in museums encourages us to work this way. We question it only when the results aren’t the ones we want.
I think there’s a lot more to say here, and I haven’t even gotten into the snowflake model of organization that Catherine Bracy talked about in her MCN2016 keynote, which might hold some of the answers for us. But it’s almost Thanksgiving, and I need to go do other things for a while. Let’s keep talking. I’m not sure if anything I wrote above makes any damn sense, but it at least helped me to think through some of these things. Hopefully it did for you, too. Catch up with y’all again soon.
Originally published at koven j. smith dot com.