5 a.m. airport thoughts on community, self-care, and the ever-supportive culture of Museum Computer Network.
I’m tired. But the best kind of tired. Because I’ve had what has likely been the most exhilarating and uplifting week of my entire adult life — and that’s because I’m lucky to call MCN (Museum Computer Network) my professional network and “home.” What makes the MCN conference so special is that it’s a coming together of the latest technology in museums with the deeply human issues that arise from those technologies. This is why museum social media has found a relevant home here. It’s also why social justice issues are discussed year after year. Where else will you find a session titled, “Intersecting Agile and the Antidotes to White Supremacy Culture”?
This year’s conference in San Diego was no different. Among the many themes that emerged, the theme of workplace culture — and our community’s range of reactions to it— was central. The program itself was foreshadowing the theme, with sessions including:
- Museum Paralysis: I Should Go, Now What?
- How to Avoid, Handle, & Recover from Burnout in Digital Communications
- How to Unionize Your Museum
- The Ethics of Musesocial
This isn’t surprising when you consider that issues surrounding museum workers rights have finally started to gain traction this year, with Kimberly Drew inspiring action during AAM’s keynote and the resulting salary transparency document. Over the course of the summer the Science Museum workers strike occurred in England, the Association of Art Museum Directors took a stand against unpaid internships, and the Association of Midwest Museums changed its job board policy to require compensation information. These are just the first, baby steps towards true institutional change — especially when it comes to colleagues and superiors truly valuing the work of museum technologists.
While I didn’t have the opportunity to attend all of the above sessions, the theme was apparent for me from my very first conversations. Here are just a few of my observations about this beautiful, supportive community and how we rally around one another during times of immense change.
- The “I Should Go, Now What?” session.
This was Chatham House rules (no sharing), so I won’t. Except to say that it was the most thoughtful, relaxed vibe, surrounded by solidarity and empowerment. So much so, that it even motivated individuals to later publicly share stories of being fired. This is so powerful. There is no shame in removing yourself from a toxic work environment, or being (perhaps strategically) forcibly removed from one. I also think every potentially “tense” session should come with panelists having wine-in-hand and pulling their chairs up for a chat with you. The best. (Thanks Seema R., W. Ryan Dodge, Koven J. Smith, & Andrea Montiel de Shuman!)
- Are there more consultants than internal museumists yet?
…Because it was starting to feel that way. So, so many have left museums where they had no path for upward growth or simply did not feel valued. Instead, they have now made success for themselves as an outside perspective for other cultural organizations. We support and cheer on our colleagues every step of the way, and I experienced this deeply over the course of the week. But when will the pendulum swing too far? There were numerous times when someone would sit down at a table with me and a small crowd and say, “WOW, all of you have struck out on your own now, haven’t you?!” And they weren’t wrong. Will museum leadership not notice this crisis of “#musetech flight” until it’s too late? And what really (really) will it take to keep the institutional knowledge in the institutions?
3. Hug a social media professional. And kick down a silo.
(The former is much easier than the latter, so there’s no excuse not to.) Between sifting through negativity 20 hours a day, being dismissed by our colleagues, and having our roles include everything plus the kitchen sink — (clever memes! ads! video! perfect grammar! design! strategy! customer service! whatever-new-social-platform-we’re-supposed-to-know-about-this-second!) it’s no wonder we’re talking about burnout. Add to that the fact that museum departments are still — generally speaking — siloed and hierarchical, and we’re also lonely within our institutions. What can be done? Back at our home museums, we all can do our part to back up the social media professional or museum technologist in the meeting when they’re undermined by a clearly unknowledgeable colleague or superior. Just a simple thanks or acknowledgement of their expertise can turn the conversation.
4. Self-care comes first. Before mission. Before the dream job.
I learned this the hard way, and it physically, mentally, and emotionally impacted my well-being. I’ve begun more openly sharing my story with others, and they’re in turn sharing their stories with me. More of us are struggling in our day-to-day work than you’d think. Find an “accounta-buddy,” (as MCN President Beth has officially deemed them), and stay in touch with a like-minded colleague throughout the year. Don’t let it just be a single-week jolt of happiness at MCN and then you’re back to being a cog in the machine that doesn’t “get” you. We are mostly far-flung from one another, but virtual accounta-buddy-ing is great! The important thing is that you find that long-term support and remain purposeful and consistent with one another. Let this person be your sounding board as we all navigate the stress of our work. One MCN session made the important reminder —enough stress can actually kill you. A museum’s mission, or keeping your “dream job,” isn’t worth it. It’s invaluable to be able to talk out this big stuff with someone who gets it. (Rather than say, your cousin who thinks that your job is to know the best art history-themed gifs at any given moment.)
Buy why are we so disillusioned?
…And why can’t we be more positive about all of this? These are questions I discussed with others and saw in multiple contexts. It makes sense that we’ve moved from a world a decade ago when audience-centered technology in museums held so much potential and promise. The future was bright with possibility! Cut to today, and we’re seeing the negative affects of that technology on our audiences, and on ourselves. And dang it. It’s freaking hard to be in digital communications when the very platforms that you depend on for your livelihood are ethically unsound and are causing a lot of the horrible things to happen in the world. It’s easy to be snarky and sad about it. But what did J̵F̵K, I mean Nik Honeysett, say in his Ignite talk? “We do these things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” The hard thing to do is to choose to be positive and to go forth with a solution for change. The foundation of our positivity is this community, our support for one another, and our pretty-darn-near complete and utter lack of competition. Let’s start from there, and move forward knowing that there’s momentum for change. (So, Amy Fox, who’s actually going to run that positivity workshop at next year’s MCN?)